What better way to learn how to serve others than to walk in the footsteps of those who have done it?
In January, a group of 13–15-year-old baseball players from Atlanta set out on a humanitarian mission to hurricane ravished Puerto Rico. They learned what it was like to barnstorm across Puerto Rico like Satchel Paige and other Negro League players who would travel to the Caribbean to play baseball during the offseason on the mainland. And they learned what it means to give back to others in the spirit of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The spirit of Clemente looms large over the Island.
He had a big heart for the less fortunate.
“I love people and I love the minority people, I love people that are not big shots, the common people, the people who have suffered. I love the workers, the poor people because they have a different approach to life than rich people who have everything and get bored…,” RobertoClemente once said.
This explains why Clemente spent his off-season away from professional baseball helping people in the Caribbean Islands who did not have as much as baseball had given him. Clemente was born in the Carolina community in Puerto Rico, an impoverished area outside of San Juan.
He dreamed of one day building a sports complex in Carolina to teach baseball skills to Puerto Rican youngsters. His dream was cut short on December 31, 1972, when the plane he was in dropped out the sky into the Atlantic Ocean during a rainstorm. The wreckage was never recovered.
Clemente was on a humanitarian mission. He was taking relief supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake hit the country on December 23, 1972. His ill-fated flight was his third relief trip to Nicaragua. When most Americans were preparing for a New Year’s Eve celebration, Clemente was preparing for a relief mission.
Clemente could have sent the aid and not gone on the trip with the supplies, but he feared that the Somoza family who had ruled Nicaragua since being installed into power by the Americans in 1912 would take the supplies from the poor and give them to the rich. He was so popular in Latin America that the military junta did not dare mistreat the poor in Clemente’s presence.
Today, Major League Baseball operates 21 RBI Academy’s (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) on the island that is 100 miles long and 35 miles wide. Flying into San Juan you can literally see baseball diamonds etched into the landscape all over the island like they had been formed at the beginning of time by God Almighty.
This January the ATLANTA METRO RBI program undertook a humanitarian mission in the spirit of Clemente and coupled it with a barnstorming trip for Black American teenagers to compete against Puerto Rican players.
How do you teach middle school age Black Americans, who were born in the strongest economy in the world, the human spirit as expressed by Clemente?
First, if you are John Hollins, a successful account executive for an Atlanta television station, you believe that teaching Black teenagers to have the humanitarian spirit of Roberto Clemente, the hope of Jackie Robinson and the promise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a worthwhile goal.
Next, you use baseball as the tool to get your message over to them and to bring cheer to Americans devastated by a natural disaster.
Hollins conceived the idea after he viewed news account of the havoc wrought by Hurricane Marie when she swept through Puerto Rico in 2017. Hollins, not one to simply toss paper towels in the aftermath of a destructive storm, partnered with Major League Baseball, The Atlanta Braves Baseball Club, and Mizuno to help the RBI program recover from the storm. The island was too unstable in 2017 and 2018 for him to make a trip, so Hollins went to work coordinating the future relief effort.
To bring the point home to his players, Hollins planned the humanitarian trip to begin 18 days after the 47 year anniversary of Clemente’s plane crash, on the first day of the King Week Celebration, which this year included what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday, and 13 days before the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson. It was a powerful weekend, loaded with symbolism.
A week before the January 18, 2019 date that his team arrived on the island, Mizuno shipped $42,000 worth of baseball equipment for the RBI programs in Aguadilla and Carolina, Puerto Rico to replace equipment that had been damaged by Marie.
When Hollins left the mainland with 16 teenagers, two coaches, a trainer and two journalists in tow, a quarter of the federal government was closed. The nation’s air traffic controllers and TSA agents were asked to work without pay. Many of these youngsters had never flown. There was some concern for the safety of the youngsters on the trip, which made this voyage reminiscent of Clemente’s New Year Eve run.
The plane pushed away from the gate, taxied down the runway and left Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Several of the players let out a scream, which soon gave way to playful fun, laughter and then sleeps. Upon landing at Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, to underscore their relief, the entire team applauded the pilot for safely landing the plane.
The ATLANTA METRO RBI had landed in the midafternoon. The players were eager to meet their Puerto Rican counterparts and compete. First up on Saturday morning, a bus ride from San Juan to Aguadilla, where the kids were able to see some of the countryside and evidence of Hurricane Marie that still lingered on the island. There were beautiful box houses on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, smaller houses, two years later still showing the impact of Marie and roadside stands that sold everything from bananas to cars to rum and much more.
Eddie Rodriguez, League Director of Puerto Rico Aguadilla RBI, and his team welcomed the Atlanta team as they got off the bus. Each Aguadilla player gave each Atlanta player a Puerto Rican flag, a handshake, and a hug as their appreciation for the baseball equipment brought from Atlanta and to show brotherhood to their peers from the mainland.
Carlos Mendez, the Mayor of Aguadilla and the city’s First Lady were on hand to welcome the Atlantans. Mayor Mendez, mindful that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the enslavement of African people in the Americas, greeted each member of the Atlanta delegation with the salutation, “Welcome home.”
It was an acknowledgment that the Caribbean Islands were the first stopping points where Africans were introduced to the enslaved life they would live and the services they would render in the colonies. If an African could not be broken of his desire to escape and find his or her way back to Africa, they remained on the island, rebellious and determined to be free.
Ghana, the first African nation-state to gain its independence from colonial rule in 1957 in a ceremony attended by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has dubbed 2019 as “The Year of Return.” Mayor Mendez’s “welcome home” greeting brought this band of African Americans full circle. They had left the mainland to render aid to their brothers in the Caribbean Sea and were greeted as the “Prodigal Son” was greeted by his father when he returned. In Aguadilla, they roasted the fattest pig and paired it with beans and rice for a festive feast after the game. The game, almost an afterthought all weekend, was won by Aguadilla RBI 10–8.
Jackie Robinson’s enduring spirit
Jackie Robinson believed that his accomplishments were meaningless if other Black Americans did not have the same opportunities that he had been given by virtue of his contribution ushering in the modern era of major league baseball.
“I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made,” Jackie Robinson once said.
Two weeks after the trip to Puerto Rico this writer was interviewed on a radio talk show that emanates out of Montgomery, Alabama, where much of 20th-century civil rights history was made. The discussion turned to Robinson’s 100th birthday. A female host on the program, who is too young to know about the hard-fought battles of Montgomery, down-played the legacy of Robinson by exclaiming, “He was treated like a dog and did not fight back.” She had to be reminded that her life would not be so grand today had Robinson not taken the bad treatment. In fact, her cavalier attitude about Robinson’s contribution to society would not exist as she would be too focused on surviving the same taunts and acts of degradation that Robinson experienced, alas, Ralph Northam.
Trips like the one taken to Puerto Rico by the Atlanta Metro RBI help to educate young people without a segregation past about the pioneers who labored at great difficulty to enable today’s Black kids to play computer games in the morning and dress for a game of baseball in the afternoon, all the while chasing a future in professional baseball.
Despite the horribly low numbers of Black Americans in major league baseball today — around eight percent of all players in the league — Blacks stood no chance of gaining a position on a major league roster prior to 1946, the year Jackie Robinson signed a contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Before Robinson, you would have to look back to 1905 for the last time major league baseball owners entertained the idea of allowing Blacks in the league. That year, the Boston Beaneaters sought to end the “Gentlemen Agreement” that kept Blacks out of the white major league. They wanted to sign William Clarence Matthews, who played shortstop four years each at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Beaneaters later became the Boston Braves before the franchise moved to Milwaukee (1953) and later to Atlanta (1965). The Braves were the first dynasty in professional baseball, having won six of the first eight National Association pennants. In 1906, the year after Matthews hung up his spikes and opted for law school, the Beaneaters changed their name to Braves.
Jarrod Simmons, Senior Coordinator, Community Affairs for the Atlanta Braves Baseball Club, assisted Atlanta Metro RBI in the coordination for the trip.
“The Braves want to help any way we can. It wasn’t a hard thing to think through, kids from Atlanta taking baseball equipment to Puerto Rico after the hurricane. How can you not get involved in a good project like this,” Simmons queried in the spirit of Roberto Clemente?
Robinson played two years in the majors with Clemente, the 1955 and 1956 seasons. At age 37 (the entire breadth of Clemente’s life) Robinson was deemed too old to contribute to the Dodgers’ success and was traded to the New York Giants.
In 1956, baseball owners had a reserve clause in all professional contracts which essentially bound a player to the ball club for the entirety of their career. The players were prohibited from seeking employment with other teams. Yet they could be traded on a whim like cows or horses or Negroes in earlier times when America was engaged in healthy Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It ran from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean Islands to the colonies which ultimately became the United States. History often notes the impact Robinson made with his entrance into baseball, but seldom notes the fact that he refused to be traded to the Giants because a trade under the reserve clause made him feel like a slave, so he retired in the rebellious spirit of his brothers left in the islands of seas centuries ago.
Robinson hoped one-day all Blacks would be free of reserve clauses, restrictive Jim Crow laws, and separate unequal facilities.
Clemente was born Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker but went by his mother’s name, Clemente. In 1954, seven years after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson to a major league contract, they signed Clemente as one of their first Latin American players. There may have been other Latin American players in the league, but Clemente was unmistakable, Black. He was a 20-year-old unprotected bonus baby ($400).
He was assigned to the Montreal Royals as Robinson had been. But he seldom received any playing time and was assigned to take batting practice with the pitchers. The Pittsburgh Pirates discovered his talented arm despite efforts by the Dodgers to hide him from other teams until they were ready to introduce a Latin player into their line-up. Five years after signing with the Pirates, Clemente led them to a World Series win over the New York Yankees (1960). His stalwart play would have won him the Series MVP but for the first game seven walk-off home run in World Series history by Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski. Then, 11 years later he led them back to the World Series and a win over the Frank Robinson led Baltimore Orioles and their trio of 20-game winners.
His professional baseball career ended abruptly in 1972 with his tragic death, two months after Jackie Robinson had given up the holy ghost, finally, teammates again.
“When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached.
In recent years, the emphasis of major league baseball has been focused on the development of Latin American talent. This was a dream of Clemente. In the off-season, he would host clinics for Puerto Rican boys and teach baseball. As the numbers of Latin American players have grown in the league, the number of Black Americans in the league has declined. To address this decline, Major League Baseball implemented a program to revive baseball in urban America which was adopted from an initiative begun in 1989 in South Central Los Angeles by John Young, a former major leaguer.
John Hollins began volunteering in the Atlanta RBI program in the early 2000s. He took his passion for baseball and social concerns to the baseball diamond where he teaches discipline on the field and relates it to discipline off the field, in the home, and in school.
Hollins was raised in a Black middle-class family in Atlanta, Georgia, the home of Dr. King and a city that chose to be “too busy to hate” during the battle for civil rights waged by King.
His parents are products of two of the nation’s stalwart historical Black Colleges and Universities. His mom, a graduate of Benedict College, which was founded in 1870 by Northern Baptist in Columbia, South Carolina for the education of its Black citizens. His dad in between service in the army had stopped at Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama where he played football and South Carolina State in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he played baseball on their national championship team in the mid-1960s. His mom worked 30 years as a social worker for Planned Parenthood. His father, the enforcer in the family worked as a certified police officer for much of his employment years with Georgia State University, where Hollins would attend school and play baseball.
Like many red-blooded American boys, Hollins dreamed of playing professional baseball. A crafty right-handed hurler, he experienced some success at Georgia State University. When he did not make the jump to the big leagues, he kept his hands in the game of baseball. First teaching the game to his son Wes Hollins, now a successful Atlanta attorney and a coach on the RBI team. Then in the first decade of this century, he got involved in the RBI program.
“When I saw the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Marie, I wanted to go immediately and help, but the infrastructure was not strong enough to bring kids,” Hollins said in the spirit of Clemente.
“Then I thought, Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend Celebration should be a weekend of serving others. What better time to serve our US home island of Puerto Rico? Since baseball is a religion to some on the island, it was a perfect tie-in to what we are hoping to achieve with the ATL METRO RBI program,” he said.
“Our goal is to develop future leaders through positive mentoring, training and promoting excellence. What better way to do that than teaching them to live a purposeful life by serving others? Now the boys get to play the game they love and help those who love the game,” Hollins added.
Prior to the trip, 14-year-old left-handed pitcher Tionne Witherspoon said that as a result of planning for the humanitarian trip he thought it would be good to give back to his community when he gets back from Puerto Rico.
“I would like to help the homeless in Dekalb County,” said Witherspoon, in the spirit of Clemente. After Witherspoon pitched a perfect seventh inning to close out the last game in Roberto Clemente Stadium, a game won by Carolina RBI 10–3, he sat in the dugout and thought about how he would approach his service after he returned to the states.
“I’m not sure how I am going to approach helping the homeless, but I have seen a lot of poor areas here and I am more committed to serving others when I get back home,” he averred in the spirit of King.
Clint Sammons at Mizuno made the effort possible by donating the baseball equipment.
“After the devastation that Puerto Rico has endured, and knowing how beloved baseball is on the island, it was really a no-brainer for us. We are thrilled to be a small part of this great humanitarian mission and it fits perfectly into our corporate philosophy that we will contribute to society by making people around the world happy through the power of sports,” Sammons said in the spirit of Clemente, Robinson, and King.
On February 16, 1962, Dr. King spoke in Puerto Rico ahead of the March on Washington that would be held in August the following year. While on the Island he dined with Clemente at Clemente’s restaurant EL Carretero in Carolina. Six years later, just ahead of the opening day of the 1968 baseball season, King was gunned down by an assassin. Clemente organized the Pirates’ Black American players to resist playing until after King’s funeral service. His resistance caused William Eckert, Commissioner of Baseball, to suspend the opening of the 1968 season until after King had been memorialized. This tribute to King was not led by any of the Black American players in the league, it was led by Caribbean born Clemente.
Following the game in Carolina, both teams retired to a large room in the stadium where they fellowshipped over broiled chicken, beans and rice. As the players broke bread together, there was a large section next to them which was roped off. In this section, Carolinians were engaged in a religious service where communion was served.
After the communion service, a drummer began to drum in the beat of drummers on the west coast of Africa. Congregants began to sway in the rhythm of the Bantu, the Igbo, and the Gabiamians; and they sang in African dialect a song, 400 years old, defying the authority of the enslaver over their lives. One would have thought that this service was taking place in the Gambia or the Old Gold Coast. The North American kids were spell-bound.
They were reconnected to their roots in ways unimaginable when they departed Atlanta on their humanitarian mission. Each time the mainland Americans gave of themselves, the Puerto Ricans gave back to them.
Back in Aguadilla, Eddie Rodriquez, Director of their RBI program said that what he hoped to achieve during the humanitarian visit by the kids from Atlanta was to reconnect the bond that Clemente had with Dr. King.
“Several years ago,” Rodriquez said, “Clemente’s youngest son was having a problem understanding who his father was. I told him the story of how his father had refused to play on the opening day when Dr. King was killed. I think learning this story gave him a greater appreciation for the type of man his father was,” Rodriquez said.
“My hope is that these kids this weekend will make lifelong friends, that they will create a bond so strong that they will stand up for their friend like Roberto Clemente did when King was killed,” he said in the spirit of Clemente, Robinson, and King.
It is easy to imagine that a couple of these kids will meet-up in a major league ballpark on the mainland, maybe in the same clubhouse, maybe in opposite clubhouses; or some, as social activists, coordinating relief efforts for an unknown future storm lurking out in the Atlantic.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium, and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org