In 1934, Carolina was a rural town in the depths
of the Great Depression and on the edge of great change. Within
the brief span of Roberto Clemente Walker’s life, the character
of his hometown-and the entire island-would be transformed from
rural-agricultural to urban-industrial.
Yet, at the time of Roberto’s birth-the
fifth and last child of Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker-farms
and banks were failing, unemployment was high, and many Puerto
Ricans were going hungry. Melchor’s job as a foreman in the
sugar cane fields kept food on the Clemente table. The parents
kept moral discipline-deeply rooted in religious beliefs-which
was influential to Roberto throughout his life.
The values of his home became hallmarks of Roberto’s
character. He never strayed from these as he navigated the perils
of segregation, the challenges of professional success, and the
persistent efforts to Americanize his personality and identity.
Baseball took Puerto Rico by storm. The game
was introduced to the island toward the turn of the nineteenth
century by young Cuban men and Puerto Ricans who had studied in
the United States. Assisted by the efforts of talented American
soldiers who helped raise the level of play, the game spread rapidly
over the next twenty years. All of the larger towns and cities
fielded teams that competed for the island championship. The first
semi-professional tournament in Puerto Rico was played in 1938-39.
Baseball has a similar history throughout the
Caribbean. Extensive Latin American amateur and professional leagues
developed where the best teams could compete. Teams could play
practically year round, moving from Mexico to Central America,
to Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Prior to racial integration of the major leagues,
stars from America’s Negro Leagues began to use their off-season
to play in the Caribbean. They brought fresh talent and new excitement.
The level of play rose to an extent that attracted white major
leaguers wanting to hone their skills in the off-season. In 1947,
the World Series Champion New York Yankees traveled to Puerto Rico
for an exhibition game with the Ponce Leones… and were beaten.
Major league scouts scoured the Caribbean leagues
for low-cost, high-impact recruits. As the first Puerto Rican players
began to find their way into the pros on the mainland, excitement
grew at home. By the early 1950s, when Roberto Clemente came of
age, baseball fever in Puerto Rico had reached unprecedented heights.
Read more of Roberto's story>