Roberto Clemente Award: History, previous winners & what it means

Out of all of the postseason awards in baseball, the Roberto Clemente Award might be the most meaningful for players. For some players, it’s more meaningful than winning a Cy Young, MVP, or even a World Series trophy. Every year, the Roberto Clemente Award is given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contributions to his team.” In other words, the meaning of the Roberto Clemente Award goes far beyond what happens on the field.

Robert Clemente Award

Naturally, there is a long and storied history behind the Roberto Clemente, which has been given out for over 50 years since 1971. Unfortunately, not all fans know the story behind the Roberto Clemente Award or why it’s so coveted by MLB players.

That’s why we wanted to take a look back at previous Roberto Clemente Award winners and share more about this award that all MLB fans should know.

Who was Roberto Clemente?

Roberto Clemente was a Puerto Rican native who played 18 seasons in the big leagues, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was one of the best players of his era, being named an all-star every year but one between 1960 and 1972. Clemente was also a four-time batting champ, once winning three times in a four-year span, and a 12-time Gold Glove winner. He also won National League MVP honors in 1966, ironically in the only season during a four-year stretch that he didn’t win the batting title. Clemente was a key figure on the Pirates during a golden generation for the team, helping them win the World Series in both 1960 and 1971, earning World Series MVP honors in 1971.

Sadly, Clemente passed away while he was still an active player. Following the 1972 season, he boarded a plane from Puerto Rico bound for Nicaragua with the intention of providing aid and supplies to victims of an earthquake. However, engine failure soon after take-off caused the plane to crash, killing all five people on board, including Clemente. At that point, Clemente had exactly 3,000 career hits, 240 home runs, and 1,305 RBIs and was a career .317 hitter.

In the wake of Clemente’s death, the Baseball Hall of Fame changed its policy for players who are deceased. Rather than having to wait the requisite five years, players who have passed away become eligible for the Hall of Fame six months after their death. As a result, Clemente was voted into the Hall of Fame the year after his death, making him a first-ballot Hall of Famer with 92.7% of the vote. More importantly, Clemente was the first Latin American player and the first baseball player from the Caribbean to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Even before his ill-fated flight on December 31, 1972, Clemente was no stranger to charitable work. During the baseball offseason every year, he worked with charities, focusing primarily on Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Before his death, Clemente had arranged three flights full of supplies to be flown to victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua. However, those flights were diverted by corrupt leaders and never reached those affected by the earthquake. Clemente decided to accompany the fourth flight with the hope of actually getting aid to victims this time.

How is the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award selected?

The Roberto Clemente Award was initially called the Commissioner’s Award and was first awarded in 1971. But in the wake of Clemente’s death, it was renamed for him in 1973. Every year, all 30 MLB teams nominate one player for the award. A group of baseball dignitaries considers those 30 nominees and selects one player to receive the Roberto Clemente Award. The winner of the award is announced each year during the World Series.

What does the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award get?

The current sponsor of the Roberto Clemente Award is Chevy, which donates money and a vehicle to a charity chosen by the winner of the award. Chevy also makes a donation to the Roberto Clemente Sports City, which is a non-profit organization based in Puerto Rico that focuses on giving children the opportunity to play sports and enjoy other recreational activities.

Past Roberto Clemente Award winners

Including the years that it was called the Commissioner’s Award, here is a list of past winners of the Roberto Clemente Award:

What have past winners said about winning the award

Many winners of the Roberto Clemente Award have spoken openly about what an honor it is to win an award that has nothing to do with their play on the field. Here are some quotes from past recipients that sum up their feelings:

Harold Reynolds: “This is the greatest award you can receive as a baseball player, flat out. There’s no other way to look at it. … [I started] to learn the story of the man, and then years later, to be able to receive this honor in his name, I really understood the fullness of it.”

Curtis Granderson: “We didn’t just get here by accident. There’s a community and a family that helped raise us and build us and be with us along the way. I’m honored to be recognized in this position because I’m not here if it’s not for the community. And now, I’m in a position to be able to give back to the community.”

Jim Thome: “We’ve formed this great fraternity because of [Clemente]. And what he’s done is left this lasting legacy for all of us to enjoy.”

Carlos Delgado: “I always said that you do the right thing not to be recognized, but if you’re going to be recognized, be recognized by the Roberto Clemente Award. Growing up in Puerto Rico, ever since you are a little kid, you start to understand how great he was.”

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