It’s Roberto, not Bob

These two baseball cards tell stories that go far beyond the photos on front and the statistics (which are impressive) and anecdotes (meh) on the back.

First and perhaps most obvious to serious collectors is the year of the cards, both issued by the Topps company. The one at left is from the 1962 set, the one at right from 1973. Second, and equally obvious to the same folks is the condition of the cards – not great. Creases and bent corners. Ugh. They definitely wouldn’t fetch more than a couple of bucks at at a baseball card show, if there still are baseball card shows.

To me (though I’ve obviously not spoiled them as they deserve), they are priceless, because of who is on the cards, and the other story they tell.

Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker, better known as Roberto Clemente, was born in Puerto Rico, where the Spanish practice of using the last names of both parents was in play. So Roberto had the first last name of his father (Melchor Clemente), followed by the first last name of his mother (Luisa Walker).

As Roberto Clemente, he was the quintessential five-tool player, one of the best to grace a baseball diamond, delighting fans for 18 seasons – all of them as a Pittsburgh Pirate – with vicious line drives, daring base-running, amazing catches, and breath-taking throws from right field. In 1973, through a special election following his untimely and heroic death, he became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When he was enshrined his plaque (an ugly likeness, like all of the Hall of Fame plaques) called him Roberto Walker Clemente, a post-humous anglicization of his name. Now look at the names on these cards. The 1962 version calls him “Bob Clemente.” The 1973 version (issued after Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, an ill-fated mission of mercy to bring aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua) calls him “Roberto Clemente.”

This Bob vs. Roberto thing was always a point of contention for Clemente, whose Major League debut was in 1955. As a black person whose first language was Spanish, he faced a double dose of discrimination. The media and, obviously, the baseball card company Americanized his given name, calling him “Bob” or “Bobby” or even “Robby,” nicknames that Clemente hated. He had the audacity to insist on being called by his given name, Roberto.

It took him years to get the baseball card company to pay attention, and there’s an interesting kind of evolution to the whole affair. Clemente’s first two cards, 1955 and 1956, are typical of those beautiful-looking, horizontal oriented sets, in his case featuring the same portrait of his handsome face both years, but different inset action shots – Clemente in his batting stance in ’55, and making a spectacular catch in ’56. Both cards also call him “Roberto Clemente,” and feature a facsimile of his signature, also, “Roberto Clemente.”

Then, beginning in 1957, for some inexplicable reason and certainly against Clemente’s wishes, Topps started calling him “Bob Clemente.” Some of the media (including broadcasters) were calling him Bob, but not most. I did a quick search on for “Bob Clemente” and “Pittsburgh Pirates” for 1956 and came up with 706 hits. Then I did the same search replacing “Bob” with “Roberto” and came up with 5,156 hits. But from 1957 through 1969, the Topps company insisted on calling the great Clemente by the wrong name.

The 1959 card is interesting because Topps brought back the fake autograph on the card. But Roberto wouldn’t play ball, apparently. The card company printed “Bob” but his autograph says “Roberto,” and he’s wearing a triumphant look, and I imagine it all as Roberto’s small act of defiance against the purveyors of cardboard gods and stale, lethally-sharp sticks of pink bubblegum. Right on, Roberto.

I wonder if it was this episode with Clemente that inspired Topps to shy away from facsimile signatures for a number of years, until 1967, when they brought back the fake autograph. This time, both his printed name and signature say “Bob Clemente.” Was this a fake signature of the fake name? I don’t know the story behind the story. Did Clemente acquiesce and sign his name as “Bob” to appease Topps? Or was this the work of some staff calligrapher at Topps? Did Topps have staff calligraphers?

Roberto finally won the quiet battle of his name in 1970, with Topps’ oddly attractive gray-bordered series of cards, in which he was immortalized on card No. 350 as “Roberto Clemente,” and so he remained for the rest of his baseball card life.

After dying tragically in that overloaded plane, shortly after taking off on Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente was remembered around the world as much for his great character and philanthropy as for his ability to hit triples and throw out baserunners. And the baseball industrial complex did the correct thing with his immediate Hall of Fame enshrinement (players typically have to wait at least five years after retiring).

Then, for the next 27 years his plaque at the Hall of Fame read, incorrectly, “Roberto Walker Clemente.” Finally, in 2000 it was changed to its proper Latin American form, “Roberto Clemente Walker.” A posthumous victory for Roberto over the anglicization of his most personal and cherished possession.

Clemente’s story about the use or misuse of his name has some relevance today when I think of the widespread practice of anglicizing names among international students. I was reminded of Roberto and these cards when I met a young Chinese man at Georgia Tech. His name is Yichen, but he explained to me that he was encouraged to change his name to something that sounded ‘White,’ because first names often shape the way people are treated, and can even affect their job prospects.

Yichen chose the name “Payne,” because he recognized it as an unusual name, even for Western ears. But soon after I met him, he went back to introducing himself as “Yichen.” Good for him.

He chose his own identity, even though research has shown that white professors respond more to Chinese students with Western names, and employers prefer applications with anglicized names. Yichen is, or soon will be, a scientist making discoveries that will affect all kinds of people, regardless of how their names are constructed. Yichen may never be depicted on a trading card but he definitely took the Roberto Clemente route. He knows who he is and insists on that identity, regardless of a small piece of a piecemeal world that would prefer he was called something else.

We can’t all be Roberto Clemente, but we can all be who we are and be remembered for who we were. I know that when Roberto Clemente went down in that plane, he didn’t go down as Bob or Bobby or Robby, and that’s not how he’ll always be remembered, whether or not it’s in the cards.

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