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Features

May 7, 2012

Clemente Connection

Baseball great, Corbin man both Marines in late 50s

CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff writer

Throughout his 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente epitomized what was good about Major League Baseball.

Until his tragic death on the last day of 1972, during a humanitarian mission to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua, Clemente won the National League batting title four times. He won 12 Gold Glove Awards, was named to the NL All-Star team 15 times, named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1966, and got over 3,000 hits. More importantly, he led the Pirates to two World Series Championships in 1960 and 1971.

For his efforts on and off the field, Clemente was elected posthumously into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.

But in 1958, Clemente was a U.S. Marine. And his training officer in boot camp was a Corbin man, Bob Terrell.

“He was an outstanding Marine. He was a physically exceptional person, had good leadership qualities, and most of all a great can-do attitude,” Terrell said Thursday.

Terrell was on his way to Pittsburgh to speak Friday at the Roberto Clemente Museum, located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of the Steel City. The session is scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and during that time, Terrell will speak with visitors, discuss his times and memories with the man who wore No. 21 for the Pirates, and answer questions about Clemente in his book, “Have We Lost Our Common Sense?”

One section in Terrell’s book has a picture from the publication “The Sporting News,” showing him inspecting Clemente’s rifle while they were both in the Marines. It also features their time in training, but not the kind of spring training most baseball fans think of.

“It was down in Parris Island, South Carolina, where the Marines had their boot camp. He was down there to go to recruit training after he joined the Marine Corps Reserve. I was one year older than Roberto. And I remember how impressed I was with that attitude of improving himself. He probably never used a rifle before, but he prepared himself and became a very good sharpshooter and marksman on the rifle range,” Terrell recalled.

That attention to learning and improving would serve Clemente for the rest of his life, according to his former training officer.

“When he came to Parris Island, he had a back problem which was the result of an auto accident he was involved in a few seasons back. After he got out of the Marine Corps, he told me that the physical training and therapy he got helped him later in baseball,” said Terrell.

When Clemente came up with the Pirates in 1955, Terrell noted the going was tough for Hispanic players in the Major Leagues.

“He was from the island of Puerto Rico, which is a United States Commonwealth. When he first came up, he spoke broken English, which caused some problems with the press during some interviews he gave to them. But he learned to master the language. Again, his attitude to learn and improve served him well.”

And from those days at boot camp came an understanding of other people from other places — and a lasting friendship between Terrell and Clemente.

“He made an impact on my view of civil rights philosophy. I believe we’re all God’s children, and he being an Hispanic, it opened my eyes about the fact that it’s a big world out there. As we became good friends, we kidded each other about my Kentucky drawl, and he about his broken English,” Terrell said.

In time, the two would visit each other whenever Clemente played teams where Terrell was living in at the time.

Terrell remembered, “When I worked for Ford Motor Company in Cincinnati, I’d head down to Crosley Field when the Reds were hosting the Pirates. And later when I moved to Texas, I’d go to the Astrodome to watch Pittsburgh play the Houston Astros. We’d usually have dinner whenever Roberto was in town for a series with those teams.”

Those get-togethers also brought some meetings with Clemente’s family, which gave Terrell some insight and inspiration into the man the Pirate right fielder really was.

“His parents would sometimes make the trip, and Roberto had a great love for them. He told me they were good in disciplining him. He grew up in a Catholic family, was very devout, and he always maintained his humility. Long after he became famous, was well-paid for his work on the field, and being one of baseball’s best players, he always kept his humility. He never forgot his roots, his upbringing, and his devotion to helping others.”

It was during that time in the 1960s that the two friends sat down to talk about old and current times. And it was during that moment that Terrell learned Clemente had set three goals in life.

“He said the first goal was to be on a World Series Championship team. His second was to win a batting championship. And his third goal was to build a recreation center in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.”

On Sunday, Dec. 31, 1972, the cheering stopped.

To help victims of a massive earthquake that decimated Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, Clemente organized a relief effort. To make sure the flight would get there to survivors, he boarded a DC-7 airplane loaded with supplies to aid the victims. The plane never made it to Managua, as it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.

Clemente’s body was never found. At the time of his death, he left behind his wife, Vera, and three children.

And he left a quote that has been used to this day. “Anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”

Since that time, many honors and memorials dedicated to Clemente have been built and given. The Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh is one of them. The museum features thousands of memorabilia items from Clemente’s life, including old uniforms, gloves, bats and balls, as well as pictures of the Clemente family and seats from the Pirates old ballpark, Forbes Field. Owned by Pittsburgh advertising photographer Duane Reider and supported by Clemente’s family, the privately-run museum is located in a former fire department engine house.

It’s where Terrell is at today, and where he wants to tell others about his memories of Clemente — and why the player Pittsburgh fans call “The Great One” should never be forgotten.

Before heading towards Pittsburgh, Terrell said, “We live in a time when people think more of themselves than of others. My friend died helping strangers. He was a compassionate person. And he was a great ambassador to baseball, and to humanity. I just don’t want people to forget how he lived and how he died. Roberto Clemente was no ordinary player. And no ordinary man.”

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