Roberto Clemente—the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder whose fabled talents and devotion to charity made him one of the most beloved ballplayers ever, and who died tragically at 38 in an airplane crash—began his career in Puerto Rico in 1952, playing for the Cangrejeros de Santurce before adoring crowds. Arriving in Pittsburgh in 1955, Clemente built a heroic 18-year career, inspiring generations of Latino men and women to seek their fortune on the field.
A multitude of players came to the United States from Spanish-speaking islands and countries and helped make baseball, and American life, what they are today. A new Smithsonian traveling exhibit, ¡Pleibol!, organized by the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service with federal funding administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, brings stories from Latino and Latina ballplayers to towns across the United States. A version of the exhibit will open this summer at the Museum of American History.
As ¡Pleibol! shows, nearly every successful professional Latino player got started in an atmosphere of community support. During the early to mid-20th century, Latino churches, clubs and businesses in the States founded teams to help players—whether immigrants or the children of immigrants—find success.
Mexican American Marge Villa began playing as a kid in Montebello, California, and by 1946 was a star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Anthony Rendon, a Mexican American infielder for the Los Angeles Angels, learned ball at a Houston YMCA. ¡Pleibol! features the uniform Villa wore when she was 13 and a baseball card from Rendon’s Little League days, touching reminders of these stars’ humble beginnings.
Fostering new talent remains a priority. Nine-time All-Star Carlos Beltrán built a baseball academy in Puerto Rico that offers budding players a route to a college education—and to professional ball. Such efforts ensure that Latino players—who make up 30 percent of all MLB players today—will continue to find prosperity in their love of the game.