By Karen Adjei; Intern, Department of Education and Visitor Services
Next year, the National Postal Museum will unveil, “Baseball: America’s Home Run,” an exciting new exhibition exploring the role of baseball in American culture through the lens of postal history! This exhibit is an extension of America’s favorite pastime—baseball—and another favorite pastime throughout the world—collecting stamps (also known as philately)—which have been explored together before. Just as the upcoming exhibit will include beloved baseball players who have also been on postage stamps, the United States Postal Service (USPS) issue of the Legends of Baseball Classic Collection pane, released on July 6, 2000, featured twenty 33-cent commemorative stamps that honored legendary baseball stars. In partnership with Major League Baseball teams and the USPS, both fans and a special member panel voted for which players would appear on the stamps. With a description of significant achievements in the baseball careers of each player printed on the back of the stamps, the public provided important input into how their favorite pastime heroes were remembered with this Classic Collection issue. One of those players was the legendary Roberto Clemente. His impact on the game has contributed to his appearance on U.S. postage stamps issued in both 1984 and 2000.
Roberto Clemente has not only been featured on stamps in America, but on postage stamps from countries throughout the world. But what about Roberto Clemente’s life and career is so meaningful to fans and communities around the globe? If stamps are a way to communicate values to the public and to honor important people and events in history, what makes this baseball player so significant?
Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico on August 18, 1934. Despite having little access to baseball equipment, he still found a way to train using a tree branch for a bat, a coffee cloth for a glove, and a knot of rags for a ball. His determination, hard work, and exceptional talent served him well throughout his extraordinary career, no matter the obstacle. Overcoming a lack of resources, a language barrier, discrimination against his skin color and identity, and even an injury, Clemente ultimately won two World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960 and 1971. He was named the National League Most Valuable Player in 1966, and for each championship game he appeared in, he never went without a hit. Clemente also won twelve Gold Gloves (an award given to the best defensive player in the league at each position), was a fourteen-time All-Star baseball player, and won four National League batting titles throughout his career. In addition, Clemente was also named the Most Valuable Player of the 1971 World Series, and reached his 3,000th major league hit on September 30th, 1972, only the eleventh player to do so at that time.
Roberto Clemente was also a tireless humanitarian who used his fame and wealth to give back to the communities that he loved and who grew to love him. He worked to promote greater accessibility and inclusion for Latinx communities within the sport and also in society at large. Clemente hosted free baseball clinics for youth and even contributed financial aid to people in his home and other Latin American countries. He also served as a Private First Class reservist in the Marine Corps for six years, serving an active six month duty commitment at Parris Island, South Carolina; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and Washington, D.C.. Ultimately, he died doing the thing he loved the most—serving others—when his life tragically ended in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while carrying relief supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims. After his untimely death, a special election was held by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and Roberto Clemente became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. His military service was also recognized and in 2003, Clemente was inducted into the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame. A year later, Roberto Clemente was inducted into The Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of Eternals.
Roberto Clemente’s life is honored and his legacy is remembered in many ways, one of which is through postage stamps. On August 17, 1984, the USPS printed and issued 119,125,000 commemorative stamps featuring Clemente in front of the Puerto Rican flag. While it recognizes the anniversary of his fiftieth birthday, the stamp also represents something bigger than itself by highlighting the impact that Clemente’s life had on baseball, the people he gave selflessly to, the history on which he made an indelible mark, and his home of Puerto Rico. By showcasing Clemente’s heritage in addition to his athletic accomplishments, this philatelic commemoration communicates how he not only transformed an entire sport into something much more than a game, but also into a beloved way of life for the supporters of baseball that came before and after him similarly seeking a chance to live a dignified life.
Through the upcoming exhibit, the National Postal Museum endeavors to be a part of the legacy of communities and institutions recognizing the impact players like Roberto Clemente had on baseball, as well as on marginalized groups. The exhibition is also augmented by an accompanying educational object cart, “Latinx Baseball Legends.” Just as stamps are able to communicate unique attributes of a historical figure or event, the object cart shares the lives of different baseball players by showcasing equipment used to play the sport, including a vitilla set used in Dominican communities, a Los Chorizeros baseball team jersey, and a coffee cloth glove. Players who have made important contributions to the game on and off the field include Fernando Valenzuela, whose success strengthened the relationship between The L.A. Dodgers and Mexican American communities; Luis Tiant, whose father played with The Negro Leagues baseball team, The New York Cubans; and Isabel Alvarez, whose skill on the field paved the way for future generations of Latinas and is recognized in the movie, “A League of Their Own.” By immersing audience members within the lives of diverse baseball heroes, “Latinx Baseball Legends” provides an opportunity for visitors to better understand and even appreciate the obstacles that various Latinx groups overcame through creativity, perseverance, and support in order to play the game they loved and transform the communities they touched. Through the pairing of the baseball exhibit and educational object cart, Roberto Clemente’s legacy lives on at the Smithsonian. Explore his and other players’ lives at the National Postal Museum and at the links below!
Karen Adjei is a graduate from Northwestern University, where she majored in History and minored in Asian American Studies. For the past year, she has enjoyed rediscovering the area back at home and seeking out opportunities to explore careers in museums, libraries, and archives. This summer, she worked with the Department of Education and Visitor Services to design an educational object cart that explores the different ways Latinx communities have played baseball, why they have done so, and what it represents. She has enjoyed interacting with visitors while testing out the cart, and is looking forward to an upcoming internship at the National Museum of American History!