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Sports Heroes Who Served: Corps Infantryman Was One of Baseball's Greatest

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Roberto Clemente proved to be among the best to ever play the game of baseball. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972.

A two-time World Series champion in 1960 and 1971, Clemente amassed 3,000 hits and 240 home runs. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1966 and received the World Series MVP award in 1971. He also earned 12 Gold Glove Awards, every year from 1961 to 1972. 

A baseball player prepares to swing a bat.
Roberto Clemente
Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player Roberto Clemente poses for a photo in 1965.
Photo By: Courtesy of Roberto Clemente
VIRIN: 650602-O-D0439-001

Clemente was also a very good hitter, winning four National League batting titles in 1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967, while compiling a lifetime average of .317. In 1972 Clemente got his 3,000th base hit on his very last at bat as a player. At the time, only 10 other players had reached this mark.

Clemente was born in Puerto Rico. He grew up poor, helping his father in the sugar cane fields. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1958 as a reserve infantryman until 1964, serving on duty in his off-seasons.

A group of Marines pose for an official photo.
Training Battalion
An official photo shows graduates of Roberto Clemente's platoon in the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., Dec. 22, 1958.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 581222-O-D0439-002

Besides serving his country, Clemente was involved in charity work in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the off-seasons. He often delivered baseball equipment and food to those in need. 

On Dec. 31, 1972, he died in a plane crash at the age of 38 while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. 

The following season, the Pirates retired his uniform No. 21, and Major League Baseball renamed its annual Commissioner's Award in his honor. Now known as the Roberto Clemente Award, it is given to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team."

Two Marines stand facing each other, one holds a rifle while the other inspects it.
Weapon Inspection
Marine Corps Pvt. Roberto Clemente, right, a Marine Corps recruit in the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., gets his weapon inspected in the latter part of 1958.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 581030-O-D0439-001

Clemente was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Puerto Rican Veterans Hall of Fame in 2018.

Clemente was posthumously honored with three U.S. government civilian awards by the president of the United States:

  • Congressional Gold Medal, May 14, 1973
  • Presidential Citizens Medal, May 14, 1973
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, July 23, 2003

A young Marine faces the camera in a group photo.
Marine Corps Pvt. Roberto Clemente
Marine Corps Pvt. Roberto Clemente, a Marine Corps recruit at 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., stands for his graduation photo, Dec. 22, 1958.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 581222-O-D0439-001

Clemente's Presidential Citizens Medal states: "All who saw Roberto Clemente in action, whether on the diamond or on the front lines of charitable endeavors, are richer for the experience. He stands with the handful of men whose brilliance has transformed the game of baseball into a showcase of skill and spirit, giving universal delight and inspiration. More than that, his selfless dedication to helping those with two strikes against them in life has blessed thousands and set an example for millions. As long as athletes and humanitarians are honored, Roberto Clemente's memory will live; as long as Citizens Medals are presented, each will mean a little more because the first one went to him."

More Sports Heroes Who Served
sports graphic
Sports Heroes Graphic
Sports Heroes Who Served graphic - with title
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903

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