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Roberto Clemente: A Hero in Life and in The Hobby

PJ Kinsella in Consignor Stories

Aug 02 — 5 mins read

By Amar Shah

Heroes come in all forms: some wear capes, some raise us, some serve us, and some sing to us.

Baseball is a game that contains all forms. There's something that has always been mythic in its history. Players become larger than life. They're Ken Burns-ed into celluloid and voice-overed into immortality.

And in the imagination of fans, facts become fable, and men become giants. There is no separation between Bunyan and the Babe.

For Carmelo, the hero was not just some nostalgic athlete with a sepia-toned stat line and a few memorable radio calls. His hero started with a capital 'H.'

When he was eight, Carmelo's uncle told him about Roberto Clemente.

"He talked about him with reverence,” Carmelo said, “because he's such a significant icon in our culture, especially in baseball. So when I was in maybe fourth or fifth grade, I was more curious about him."

Carmelo read a children's biography about Clemente called "Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente" by Paul Robert Walker. As a fellow Puerto Rican, he connected with Clemente's life story.

1968 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA MINT 9

1968 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA MINT 9

Clemente's life and baseball career are well known. Son of a sugarcane cropper. Both black and Latino. Double disadvantaged at a time when baseball was still integrating. He played 18 years for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with 15 All-Star games, 12 Gold Gloves, 3,000 hits, an MVP, and perhaps a legacy as the finest right fielder of his era.

On December 31,1972, Clemente was trying to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua when his plane crashed, killing him along with four others onboard.

"His memory is kept alive as a symbol of action and passion, not reflection and longing,"  wrote New York Times best-selling author David Maraniss in his book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero. "He broke racial and language barriers and achieved greatness and died a hero."

Carmelo saw something else in Clemente.

"I didn't grow up with a father," Carmelo said. "You look for father figures who can guide you. And there's so much for me in the way he lived his life. To be of service, to be someone of honor. To be someone of integrity."

His passion for Clemente then branched into card collecting.

"My first vintage Roberto Clemente cards were given to me by my older brother," Carmelo said. "He gave me a 1968 Topps card and a 1973 Topps card. And when he handed those to me, my mind was blown. I thought it was incredible. And it kind of set me on this goal to collect every single one of his base cards."

This was an age of card shows, and Carmelo started to assemble his collection by perusing the mall with his mom. 

"I noticed all the tables and all the display cases," Carmelo said. "And it just happened to be randomly a day when they were doing the card convention at the mall. Those are great surprises because I could spend time while she was out shopping. I would just walk around, trying to learn as much as possible or talk to people and see as much as I could."

That's where he also learned the art of bargaining. He was a kid in an adult world.

At one card show, Carmelo approached a dealer who was selling a 1969 Topps Clemente.

"He was asking maybe $20 for it, which was a huge deal for me," Carmelo said. "I remember looking at the card closely, seeing a horizontal crease on the surface and some other imperfections. And I was like, Oh, I bet I could talk it down."

Carmelo wanted to offer $10, but it was nerve-racking for him. So he offered $15. The dealer smiled immediately, lit up, and agreed to the deal.

"I remember suddenly feeling like I could have got it for $10. I was scared to ask," Carmelo said. "It lit this fire in me like whenever I'm haggling, don't be afraid to ask for what you think is a fair price."

This also translated into Carmelo building confidence and communication going forward. He went after the cards he wanted. That incident helped him purchase another 1969 Topps Clemente card, a PSA 8 with superior eye appeal.

1970 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA MINT 9

1970 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA MINT 9

As Carmelo matured as a collector, he set a personal goal to build a high-end collection of vintage Roberto Clemente cards graded at PSA 8 or higher. He diligently pursued this dream, eventually creating a stunning set showcasing the baseball legend's brilliance.

He also upgraded to a PSA 9 1968 Clemente.

"That was really special to hold for the first time because that was a significant upgrade to the one my brother had originally given me," Carmelo said. "I held on to those cards for years, and once I upgraded to that PSA 9, I gave the 1968 Topps card and the 1973 Topps card back to my brother."

That 1968 Topps PSA 9 is up for sale in REA's Summer 2023 Catalog Auction along with his 1970 Topps Clemente PSA 9.

In REA's Spring 2023 Catalog Auction, his PSA 9 1957 Topps Clemente card sold for $19,200, the second-highest price for this card ever realized at auction.

"I was happy. I think it performed a little bit better than I expected," Carmelo said.

For him, Clemente transcends time.

"He walked his talk and led by example," Carmelo said. "Unlike many professional athletes today, he was willing to use his platform and microphone to put himself out there. That modeled for me what it was to be of service, to be someone of honor, to be somebody with pride in your work and the way you carry yourself."

Like a true hero.

Amar Shah is a multiple Emmy-winning writer and producer who has written for ESPN.com, NFL.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Orlando Sentinel, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Slam Magazine and The Washington Post. In the 90s, Amar was a teen sports reporter and got to hang out with the Chicago Bulls during their golden era. He even landed on the cover for Sports Illustrated for Kids with Shaquille O’Neal. His debut novel "The Hoop Con" comes out on February 6, 2024 with Scholastic. You can preorder here:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-hoop-con-amar-shah/1143287376?ean=9781338840315

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