Art hanging on the wall of the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Taken by the author in December 2012.

Every church has its saints, each faith tradition its martyrs, and the “church of baseball” is no exception. This Christmas season, thoughts will undoubtedly turn to baseball great Roberto Clemente on the fiftieth anniversary of his tragic death while on a mission of mercy.

In retrospect, 1972 proved pivotal in the development of baseball’s martyrology—not just with the death of Clemente on New Year’s Eve, but also of Jackie Robinson nine weeks earlier, on October 24. Each passing was unexpected and dramatic in its own way. Clemente ended the regular season on September 30, with his 3,000th hit, becoming the eleventh player and the first Latino to reach the milestone. He was thirty-eight when he and four others died, crashing into the sea off the coast of Puerto Rico in a plane overloaded with donated goods destined for survivors of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua. Robinson, who threw out the first pitch at Game 2 of the World Series that year, died at age fifty-three, two days after the end of the series and in the twenty-fifth anniversary season of his 1947 reintegration of the major leagues.

Robinson’s career was framed in the language of martyrdom from the moment of his historic signing to a Major League contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. An acclaimed athlete at UCLA, an Army veteran, and a Negro League ballplayer, he was recruited in an elaborate scheme by Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey to break baseball’s infamous color line. Robinson was instructed by Rickey to “turn the other cheek” when confronted with physical, emotional, and verbal abuse—on the field and off. This imposed expectation was rooted in Rickey’s interpretation of the gospel of Matthew 5:38-41 as filtered through one of his favorite books, a “freely translated” English language version of Life of Christ (1923) by the Italian convert to Catholicism Giovanni Papini. At the heart of Papini’s argument was a stoic rejection of retaliation that is almost sadistic in its embrace of undeserved violence.

Even though Robinson’s cheek-turning restraint ceased with the 1949 season, Rickey perceived such a posture as a long-term strategy to be adopted by Black players in order to bring about racial inclusion. In a 1957 interview with Ebony magazine, he continued to insist that “Negro players [must] remain patient and forbearing because the problem has not been solved and I think the colored player should want to help solve it by not upsetting the bucket of milk.” The violence of this appeasement strategy, which required extraordinary sacrifice on the part of Black players, was known to Rickey, who admitted in his last book, The American Diamond: A Documentary of the Game of Baseball (1965), that “For three years (that was the agreement) this boy was to turn the other cheek. He did, day after day, until he had no other to turn. They were both beat off.”

Robinson was instructed by Rickey to “turn the other cheek.” This imposed expectation was rooted in Rickey’s interpretation of the gospel of Matthew 5:38-41.

Robinson’s struggle with what Rickey called the Papini doctrine is evident across the years in his autobiographies. On one hand, he acquiesced for the purposes of a greater good—civil rights for African Americans; on the other hand, he recognized the toxicity of insisting that the victims of racism bear the burden of reconciliation. In his last book, I Never Had it Made, published in the month of his death, Robinson wrote: “Name them for me. The examples of blacks who ‘made it.’ For virtually every one you name, I can give you a sordid piece of factual information on how they have been mistreated, humiliated. Not being able to fight back is a form of severe punishment.” At his death, Robinson was mostly estranged from the team and the league he had integrated. It would be another twenty-five years before Robinson’s memory would be honored with symbolic actions like retiring his uniform number 42 across Major League Baseball.

Roberto Clemente broke into the majors in 1955 at age twenty. Like Robinsom, he was signed by Branch Rickey, and he debuted with the Pittsburgh Pirates only a year after the team’s integration. He was a Spanish-speaking Black Puerto Rican who played ball in the United States and returned home to La Isla at the end of each season. His accented English and use of Spanish conveyed foreignness, while his Blackness subjected him to the full cruelty of Jim Crow. The colonial status of Puerto Rico conferred on him second-class citizenship. Within the United States, for fans and sportswriters alike, Clemente and other Latino ballplayers were too Black to be white, too accented to be Black, too complicated to be American.

The media was a source of ongoing consternation for Clemente, who felt that he was characterized in dismissive and derogatory terms that perpetuated stereotypical images of Blacks, Hispanics, and Latin Americans. He criticized the overwhelmingly white fraternity of sportswriters for underestimating the quality of his play in comparison to his peers, for portraying him as a malingerer and a hypochondriac, and for making him appear unintelligent by mocking his English. By challenging such coverage as racist and anti-Hispanic, he did not follow the script of “turning the other cheek.” As a Sporting News columnist noted the month after his death, Clemente’s assessment of his relationship with the press reflected an unspoken truth: “They wish I were somebody else…. They want me to be pretty and white and a centerfielder for the Yankees.”

Unlike Robinson, whose martyrdom-in-life is often interpreted as salvific for baseball, the nation, and for African Americans, Clemente’s martyrdom is tightly constructed around his death as part of a humanitarian act that resulted in the ultimate sacrifice. The language of “no greater love” from the gospel of John 15:13 was employed in memorials implicitly and explicitly.

Within the United States, for fans and sportswriters alike, Clemente and other Latino ballplayers were too Black to be white, too accented to be Black, too complicated to be American.

The tragedy, and its occurrence in the Christmas season, initiated a look back at Clemente’s career through a prism of service and charity by the very sportswriters who damaged his reputation. They posthumously transformed the angry foreigner who did not turn the other cheek into a good citizen whose selfless generosity is an example to others. In this way, they successfully avoided addressing the racism and xenophobia that plagued too much of their coverage. Clemente's eligibility for election to the Hall of Fame was expedited, and Major League Baseball ritually underscored this beatification by instituting the annual conferral of an award in Clemente’s name to players who demonstrate “his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.” Not surprisingly, recipients are celebrated for their charitable efforts and philanthropy, but not for prophetic actions that call either society or their sport to accountability.

In the opening monologue of Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out, narrator Kippy Sunderstrom describes his protagonist teammate, the biracial centerfield star Darren Lemming, in these terms: “Even in baseball—one of the few realms of American life in which people of color are routinely adulated by people of pallor, he was something special: A black man who had obviously never suffered.” The expectation that suffering and sacrifice are indispensable to the experience of being Black in baseball is ingrained. The memorialization of Jackie Robinson, stuck in time as a cheek-turning rookie, and of Roberto Clemente as a self-sacrificing humanitarian, conveniently domesticates their righteous anger and silences their outspoken advocacy for justice in their shared profession as well as in their broader socio-political contexts.

Making saints is a process of memory and interpretation. The living icons have passed away, so they can no longer speak for themselves. The continuation of their narratives depends on hagiographers, curators of selective memories, devotees, family, and even detractors. Over the past fifty years, both Clemente and Robinson have been “traditioned,” in a variety of contexts, through religious imagery and language. Christian concepts of suffering and holiness inflect—and inflict meaning on—their struggles. How Major League Baseball, among others, has constructed their sanctity deserves critical attention on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the re-integration of baseball and the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of these two iconic stars.


Carmen Nanko-Fernández is professor of Hispanic theology and ministry and director of the Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Her publications focus on areas of Latin@́ theologies, Catholic social teaching, sport and theology, and the intersections between religion and popular culture with particular attention to béisbol/baseball. She is founding co-editor of the series Disruptive Cartographers: Doing Theology Latinamente (Fordham University Press). Carmen is currently completing her book ¿El Santo? Baseball and the Canonization of Roberto Clemente (Mercer University Press).

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