Looking back at the Hall of Famer's stay in Fort Myers, 42 years after his death
David Dorsey, firstname.lastname@example.org
December 31, 2014
The photograph shows Roberto Clemente jumping for a fly ball at Terry Park, an act he completed countless times between 1955, his rookie season, and 1968, the Pittsburgh Pirates' final spring training in Fort Myers.
Clouds shaped like wings of an angel appear in the background behind Clemente. The negative of the photo, taken circa 1960 at Terry Park by Jim Klingensmith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was recovered from a trash container in 1991, stored in a box for seven years and then bought and displayed at the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh.
Like that photograph, Clemente's stay in Fort Myers has remained hidden but preserved.
Forty years have passed since the Hall of Fame right fielder died at the age of 38 on Dec. 31, 1972. His plane crashed while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Clemente's native Team Puerto Rico arrives in Fort Myers today for four days of practices and games in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. Despite the 45 years that have passed since Clemente played off Palm Beach Boulevard, signs and stories of his time in Fort Myers remain. So do those of Clemente as an international icon.
"There's one thing that strikes me," said David Maraniss, who wrote the best-selling biography "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," published in 2006. "It's 40 years since he died and 60 years since he made it to the United States. Yesterday can seem like a million years ago. Everything has become so immediate. But somehow, Clemente is revered and remembered. It's quite unusual."
ESPN will broadcast "The Clemente Effect," a 90-minute documentary with the vision of capturing Clemente's legacy, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 10.
Director Mario Diaz, 42, a Puerto Rico native, traveled to Fort Myers in October for filming.
"Our visit to Fort Myers was twofold," Diaz said. "We wanted to document his years there. It was the first time he experienced the Jim Crow laws. And we wanted to see what the city has done afterward. It was an important part of our story."
LIFE ON LIME STREET
Clemente arrived in Fort Myers with no fame and no right to stay with the rest of his teammates because of his dark complexion. While the white players lived in the Bradford Hotel downtown, Clemente began his career by living with Etta and Charlie Powell at 2764 Lime St. They lived in a Dunbar neighborhood known as "The Bottom."
The address no longer exists. The house has been razed and replaced. Etta Powell died at age 84 in 1987. Charlie Powell died years earlier. The Powells had no children. Their best mutual friend, Fort Myers native Pat McCutcheon, died last year at the age of 90.
"Etta Powell had one of the nicest homes there," said her goddaughter, Evelyn Jones, 71.
Jones, a retired Lee County teacher, used to accompany Clemente to and from a corner grocery store. She did that a handful of times, and she said Clemente always acted with courtesy and appreciation toward her.
She was 14 in 1955 and Clemente was 20. He was, by many accounts, shy, still learning English and still learning to understand why the dark color of his skin prevented him from staying with the rest of his Pirates teammates.
"There wasn't that type of segregation in Puerto Rico," Maraniss said. "When he got to Fort Myers, it was a different situation. He had to deal with it on his own, basically."
The Pirates had just one other black player in 1955, the first spring the team held its practices in Fort Myers. Native Cuban Ramon Mejias, now 82, is living in California but could not be reached by The News-Press or the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1957, Clemente and a growing number of black players moved to the late Dr. Ella Piper's home at Mango and Evans streets, said Marshall Williams, now a 70-year-old Cape Coral resident who grew up across the street from that house. In the mid-1960s, the black Pittsburgh Pirates were allowed to live with their white teammates at the hotel downtown.
On some evenings, Williams said he would see Clemente at Club 82, a bar on Anderson Avenue, later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"He would sit in the corner and just sip on his beer until it was time to go home," Williams said. "He was just a quiet dude. He didn't have much to say. He was cool."
TERRIFIC AT TERRY PARK
Woody Hanson, a Fort Myers property appraiser, has numerous photographs of Clemente hanging in his office.
In 1965-68, at ages 11-14, Hanson landed a prime spot for any child that age. He worked at Terry Park as a batboy.
"It was the most magical place I have ever experienced," Hanson said. "It was the greatest collection of characters and wonderful people. It was a moment I treasure.
"Roberto Clemente was one of those great people and ballplayers that cared about kids — and about clubhouse boys. I will never, ever forget him. Most of the players would talk like this:
'Hey, do this.'
"But with Clemente, he would call you by your first name. He was like that with everybody. What do you expect? Clemente was the first one in the clubhouse every morning. Clemente was quiet. He liked to operate under the radar. He was very humble. And with the way he treated me, I knew this was a good man."
Fort Myers resident Frank Pigott also had a good vantage point of Clemente. Pigott's father, the late Park T. Pigott, helped lure the Pirates to Fort Myers for spring training.
"You want to play catch?" Clemente would ask Frank Pigott.
"I'd play catch with Roberto Clemente and a lot of them," said Frank Pigott, now 70. "At the time, I was in awe. I wouldn't say he was shy, but he wasn't an in-your-face type guy. He was a genuine, nice guy. He always spoke to you by your name. He'd shake your hand. He was always glad to help people. If there were 1,000 kids there to get his autograph, he would sign every one of them."
Former Fort Myers mayor Wilbur Smith, 67, was 11 years old in 1957. Smith, who in 1993 would help land the Boston Red Sox at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers for spring training, became mesmerized by Clemente's dominance in right field.
"I saw him pick a ball off the top of the right-field wall that was hit by Stan Musial," Smith said. "Clemente caught it, turned and fired all the way to home plate, to hold the runner at third. It is to this day the most amazing baseball play I've ever seen. I've never seen an arm that could compare to his."
Clemente belongs to Puerto Rico, where a 12,500-seat stadium opened in 2000 in his hometown of Carolina. He belongs to Pittsburgh, where Roberto Clemente Bridge leads to a 12-foot, 1-ton, bronze statue of him, just outside PNC Park.
Clemente belongs to Fort Myers, too.
The 10-acre Clemente Park, on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Henderson Avenue, has two signs rededicating it on April 30, 2011.
To the north, a faded and scratched plaque commemorating Roberto Clemente Field at Terry Park sits not far behind home plate. Shady Oaks Park can be seen across the street. Less than a mile to the east, one can drive by Lime and Mango streets, where Clemente once lived.
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had no idea back in 1977-81 that he practiced on the same fields Clemente once roamed. As a young outfielder, catcher and first baseman, Hurdle trained at Terry Park for the Kansas City Royals.
Since becoming manager of the Pirates in 2011, Hurdle's appreciation for Clemente has grown.
"Since I've gotten here, he has obviously taken on a different meaning and in deeper ways," Hurdle said. "The legacy. The family. I know his wife. I know his sons. I know them all. Anybody who comes to town, we take them to the museum. It's the No. 21 that Clemente wore."
Asked if he could imagine being separated from his teammates in living accommodations because of the color of his skin, Hurdle said he could not.
"No," Hurdle said. "I mean, we have this conversation about Jackie Robinson all the time, and rightfully so. But there are so many other similar stories like that with guys like Roberto Clemente. There was no such thing as equality back in those days. That was just wrong. There were haves and have nots, cans and cannots. No, I can't imagine. I still have no understanding about the challenges and the perseverance it took to overcome all of that — and play the sport better than almost everyone."
In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson's No. 42 for all teams, recognizing Robinson for breaking the color barrier as the first black player in the majors.
Efforts to retire Clemente's No. 21 across Major League Baseball have stalled under Commissioner Bud Selig. Roberto Clemente Jr. vowed to renew the cause when Selig retires.
The sport named its annual humanitarian award after Clemente in 1973. Whether No. 21 gets universally retired or not, Clemente's legacy seems secure, Maraniss said.
"You talk to most athletes today, and they don't even know the history of their own sport," Maraniss said. "But you talk to any Latino player, and he'll know Roberto Clemente."
Kennys Vargas knows Clemente. The 22-year-old Minnesota Twins minor league first baseman from Canovanas, Puerto Rico, had this to say about a man who died 18 years before Vargas was born.
"Roberto Clemente, in Puerto Rico, is the best," Vargas said. "He's the king of kings."
Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter)
Won four National League batting titles
Achieved 3,000th career hit Oct. 3, 1972, his final game
Finished career with .317 batting average
Won 1966 National League Most Valuable Player Award
Won 1971 World Series MVP Award
Earned 12 Gold Gloves
Selected to 12 All-Star games