medals celebrate baseball players who tore down cultural barriers —
racial, ethnic and religious. Among these pioneers is a man who lost
his life during a humanitarian mission.
Clemente Walker (as with many of Latino heritage, his mother’s maiden
name, Walker, is paired with his father’s last name) was one of the
greatest players in the sport from the mid-1950s until his tragic
death in 1972. He was born in Barrio San Antón, Carolina, Puerto Rico,
in 1934, where as a high school ballplayer in the late 1940s he caught
the attention of an official with a local softball team. By the age of
16, he was playing on an amateur Puerto Rican baseball team. He turned
professional in 1952, playing for two years on a Puerto Rican winter
1954, Clemente was signed to play on a minor league team in Montreal
affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers. During the 1954 rookie draft,
however, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team he played
for until his death. Clemente’s performance on the Pirates proved to
be outstanding, and he received multiple awards over the course of his career.
December 1972, Clemente — also lauded as a humanitarian — sponsored
relief missions to Managua, Nicaragua, after it was devastated by a
magnitude of 6.2 earthquake. After the supplies onboard the first
three flights were stolen by corrupt officials, Clemente personally
led a fourth mission on Dec. 31, 1972. However, the plane crashed into
the ocean, killing all on the aircraft. Clemente’s body was never found.
early 1973, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives
to authorize a congressional gold medal honoring Clemente; one of the
co-sponsors was a former baseball player who had played against
Clemente, and who became a member of Congress. The bill quickly
passed, and was signed into law May 14, 1973, by President Nixon.
design by Virgil Cantini took an innovative approach. Both sides are
convex (presaging the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame
commemorative coins), with the obverse design elements appearing as an
outline of a portrait of the player along with the stitched seam of a
baseball. The reverse depicts a grouping of baseballs bursting from
the surface as though they about to rise into the air. The U.S. Mint
struck the sole gold medal and bronze duplicate medals. The Chamber of
Commerce of Greater Pittsburgh presented the gold version to
Clemente’s widow, Vera. The chamber sold to the public the 3-inch
bronze and 1.3125-inch bronze versions, some of the medals with gold plating.