A stained-glass window depicting Roberto Clemente in front of clouds in the shape of angel wings sits on display at the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. (Photo: Jacob Pomrenke)
Roberto Clemente is one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, exhibiting remarkable skills both in the field and at the plate. Likewise, Clemente is widely regarded as an admirable human being. He was not only a good teammate, husband, and father, but he was also a responsible world citizen and faithful Catholic. His virtuous reputation as both a ballplayer and person was eternally cemented by the circumstances of his death: He died while still an active player trying to bring aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims.
We generally consider professional ballplayers for no greater honor than induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a status that Clemente achieved soon after his death. However, unlike every other ballplayer and very few other human beings, some have desired to further scrutinize Clemente’s life. They have asked if Clemente led a life of heroic virtue and was holy. They have asked if, in death, Clemente was responsible for a miracle. They have asked that serious consideration be given to the solemn question: Was Roberto Clemente a saint?
In the summer of 2014, a story appeared on the National Catholic Reporter website titled “Could Baseball Player Roberto Clemente Become a Saint?”1 The article documented the work of Pittsburgh native Richard Rossi, a former evangelical minister, in promoting the idea of Clemente as a saint. Rossi produced and directed a 2013 movie-length dramatization of Clemente, titled Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.2 As he contemplated Clemente’s life, Rossi came to believe that Clemente had led a saintly life. In 2014 this belief led Rossi to reach out to Pope Francis and Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and seek their support. At the time, it appeared that Rossi had little more than his personal conviction motivating him to promote the notion of Clemente as a saint. However, the idea resonated with others, and over the next year stories appeared in the media, from the Los Angeles Times to The Sporting News, all presenting this idea with something much closer to curiosity, and even possibility, rather than skepticism.3
Any discussion of making Clemente a saint would be incomplete without detailing the checkered past of its primary proponent, Rossi. Raised a Catholic, he became a born-again Christian in his college years and later started his own churches and held healing clinics, events akin to faith healing. In 1994 Rossi’s life took a much darker turn when he was charged with attempted murder after his wife was found near death on a roadside near Pittsburgh. She initially accused Rossi of attacking her but later recanted the story. The subsequent trial became a sensationalized event and ended in a hung jury. Rossi served 96 days in prison after a plea bargain. He and his family moved to California, where he once again found himself in legal trouble, charged with diverting money from a church for his personal use.4
In the summer of 2017, stories regarding the campaign for Clemente’s sainthood were revived as it was reported that Clemente had perhaps been responsible for a miracle. Jamie Nieto, the actor who played Clemente in Baseball’s Last Hero, was purported to have been a part of the miracle.
Besides being an actor, Nieto was a former Olympic high jumper who broke his neck in an accident in 2016. Nieto was married on July 22, 2017. Despite being told that he might never walk again, Nieto walked down the aisle at his wedding. Rossi claimed that Nieto’s recovery and ability to walk again as he took part in the marriage sacrament was miraculous and attributed the miracle to Clemente.
Additionally, Rossi claimed that this miracle further qualified Clemente for sainthood.5 After Rossi’s claim was made, it was reported that “church sources” stated that Pope Francis had officially declared Clemente as “blessed.” This moved Clemente just one step from becoming a saint in the Catholic Church. Again, this story received wide, and generally earnest, media attention.6 However, a few days later, the Vatican officially denied the claim of beatification of Clemente.7 No new information concerning the possibility of sainthood for Roberto Clemente has appeared since 2017.
While it seems unlikely that Clemente will be ever truly be considered for sainthood, he remains an inspirational figure for his humanitarian work. A quote attributed to Clemente reflects his beliefs in serving others: “Any time you have the opportunity to accomplish something for somebody who comes behind you and you do not do it, you are wasting your time on Earth.”8 As the stories regarding the possibility of sainthood for Clemente were met almost exclusively with curiosity and wonder rather than disbelief, clearly they struck a chord with the public. In life and in death, Clemente evokes thoughts beyond the baseball diamond. Baseball fans will continue to admire, revere, and venerate Roberto Clemente as a good, if not saintly, human being who lived a grace-filled life.
RICHARD J. PUERZER is the chairperson of the Department of Engineering at Hofstra University. His writing on baseball has appeared in several SABR books, including Moments of Joy and Heartbreak: 66 Significant Episodes in the History of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2018) and Pride of Smoketown: The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords (2020), as well as in Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture; Black Ball; The National Pastime; The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture proceedings; Zisk; and Spitball. He and his wife, Clare, have four children, Casey, Aaron, Josh, and Addie.