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Remembering Roberto
archived from: 2003-08-22
by: John Franko

During his 17-year Major League career, the late Roberto Clemente hit .317, collected 3,000 hits, clubbed 240 home runs, and won four National League batting titles and 12 Gold Gloves.

But he was much more than a superstar on the field. More than 30 years after his death, he is still remembered as a man whose greatest joy was helping others.

“We know he was a great sports figure, but more than that, he was a great humanitarian,” said Father William Cheetham, a retired priest of the diocese.

“He was a good, religious man. That’s what we should remember.”

Father Cheetham and Father Alvin Gutierrez, parochial vicar at Word of God in Swissvale, concelebrated a memorial Mass at St. Mary of Mercy in Downtown Pittsburgh several days after Clemente’s death in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972.

Clemente died while carrying relief supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua.

“You think it was the holiday season, and he was going out on this plane to help others,” Father Cheetham said. “In a sense, he was a martyr.”

Clemente’s memory was honored July 23 when he was one of 11 recipients of the 2003 Presidential Medal of Freedom. President George Bush presented the medal to his wife, Vera, during a ceremony at the White House.

President Bush said that in an era of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, Clemente ranked as one of the greats. He described him as a man with “a quick bat, a rifle arm and a gentle heart.”

“Yet the true worth of this man, seen in how he lived his life, and how he lost his life, cannot be measured in money,” the president said. “And all these years later, his family can know that America cherishes the memory of Roberto Clemente.”

Father Cheetham came to know Clemente when he was serving as pastor of the former St. John the Evangelist on Pittsburgh’s South Side in the early 1960s. Father Gutierrez had been assigned to his parish, and the Clementes were seeking a priest who could speak Spanish.

“They came over on Sunday nights,” Father Cheetham recalled. “Their kids were small. It was a very close family. They were very friendly.”

He spoke of Clemente’s legendary love of children.

“Whenever a kid was sick, he would go to visit them,” he said. “He would stir things up at the hospital.”

Former Pirates outfielder Frank Thomas, a member of St. Sebastian in Ross Township, played with Clemente for several seasons in the 1950s. He said Clemente was among a rare breed of players who wanted to go back to where they had come from and help those less fortunate.

“He wanted to give underprivileged kids the chance to play, things he didn’t have the opportunity to do as a kid,” he said. “He was a very caring person.”

Clemente’s vision was realized when the Roberto Clemente Sports City was established in his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico. His son Luis serves as its president and chief executive officer.

Another son, Roberto Jr., is active with the Clemente Foundation in Pittsburgh.




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