(RNS) Richard Rossi is on a crusade of sorts, traveling to cities across the country to collect stories about the fabled healing powers of baseball great Roberto Clemente.

Roberto Clemente. Public domain image

Roberto Clemente. Public domain image

His goal? Nothing short of making Clemente an officially recognized Catholic saint.

“He had a calling to be a great baseball player,” Rossi said, “but he had a calling beyond baseball.”

Clemente played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955-1972. He reached 3,000 hits and won the National League MVP trophy in 1966.

On Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente boarded a flight in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to ferry relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Soon after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing Clemente and four others.

Rossi was only 9 years old when Clemente died but remembers going to Pirates games for $1 with his father. Since then, Rossi said he’s read almost everything written on Clemente and talked with many more people who knew him.

After talking to several people, including a nun, Rossi said, he learned the religious side to Clemente had been left out of most biographies. So, Rossi, a 51-year-old Catholic and independent filmmaker in Hollywood, made it one of the bigger parts in his movie, “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.”

Now, Rossi and a group of volunteers are listening to people’s stories about Clemente, and they’re using the scientific tools of X-rays and medical records to verify tales of Clemente’s miraculous healing touch.

Under normal circumstances, miracles are considered much later in the process, after the church has officially opened a sainthood cause. Catholic teaching says miracles attributed to a saint — two are needed for canonization, after his or her death — are evidence that the person has God’s ear in heaven.

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“One reason the Catholic Church has lasted a couple of thousand years, it has this kind of process, they’re very slow and so we want to make sure we present something that, you know, has a lot of credible evidence,” Rossi said.

Rossi already has several supporters on his side, including Duane Rieder, executive director of the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh.

Rieder said he has spent time talking to family, friends and nuns who knew Clemente; they say he predicted his own death through dreams of him dying in the ocean and his body not being found.

But Rieder said he feels that the most important part is not the way Clemente died, but the way he lived his life for others.

“He’s the only true baseball hero. He’s the only person, player that ever gave up his life helping other people. Everybody else, you know, Babe Ruth wasn’t a hero. He was a hell of a baseball player,” Rieder said. “Roberto Clemente was the only true baseball hero.”

Rossi is also looking for support from bishops, including Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan — and even Pope Francis.

“The purpose of my writing is to humbly ask your blessing my efforts to defend the beginning of the canonization of Puerto Rican athlete humanitarian Roberto Clemente,” the letter says. 

Framed by wing-shaped clouds, Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, jumps for a fly ball at Terry Park, where he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Photo by Jim Klingensmith courtesy of The Clemente Museum

Framed by wing-shaped clouds, Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, jumps for a fly ball at Terry Park, where he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Photo by Jim Klingensmith, courtesy of the Clemente Museum. Not available for redistribution

As the archbishop of San Juan, Nieves would have to sign off on Clemente’s sainthood cause and move the process along to the Vatican. The Archdiocese of San Juan did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Rossi also hopes to meet with Pope Francis and show him his movie. “I think he is the perfect pope for this — No. 1, being Latin American. But No. 2, he thinks outside the box.”

Carmen Nanko-Fernandez, a Latina theologian at Chicago Theological Union, is writing a book about Clemente, “El Santo! Baseball and the Canonization of Roberto Clemente.” She said anything is possible with Pope Francis, but due to a canonization process that can stretch on for centuries, she isn’t so sure Clemente will make the cut.

“All evidence seems to point to that Clemente was a good guy who tried to lived his life well. So in that sense, you know, does he have a chance at being considered a saintly person? Sure,” she said. “Will that make him into the canonization process that makes him an officially recognized saint in the Catholic Church? I’m not so sure.”

But Nanko-Fernandez said Hispanic Catholics can continue to venerate and honor him, making him an unofficial saint.

“It’s not necessary for one to become an official saint to be considered a saint,” Nanko-Fernandez said.

For Rossi, Clemente is needed as a saint for “ordinary” people to look up to. Clemente lived his life for others and died in service to the poor, Rossi said, and what could be more saintly than that?

“When we look at the process of canonization, unfortunately, it’s very weighted towards celibate people that choose the vocations of being a priest or nun,” Rossi said. “I mean, there’s a very small percentage that walk it out in the real world as a family-first man, as a husband, as a father, in a secular culture, as a baseball star.”

10 Comments

  1. SAINT!!!?? Roberto Clemente was great human being!
    Why should he be DEMOTED to something so low as sainthood?

    The saints are mostly a clutch of hysterical, superstitious virgins
    venerated mostly for their cowardly and slavish obedience
    to Catholicism and its offensive, repressive psychological, eschatological and geographical tactics; in some cases for the pagans they conquered. (St. George)

    ROBERTO CLEMENTE was a Great Man.
    But No primate should worship another primate – The best we can do with such wonderful people is to tell the story and hold high the example of moral courage.
    Why besmirch his greatness by lumping him in with the inhumanity of this pantheon? :

    St. Louis IX (marauding crusader, Inquisition terrorist)

    St. Aquinas (Kill “non-believers”)

    Saint Junipero Serra (a member of the Spanish Inquisition)

    St Maria Maddalena De’ Pazzi (self-abuse to the point of death)

    Saints Robert Bellarmine (“burn the heretics alive”)

    Saint Thomas More (“burn heretics alive”)

    Saint Ambrose of Milan (Jews are the worst creatures on earth)

    Saint John Chrysostom (Jews are demons, synagogues are caverns of devils)

    Enough with religion and its claims.


    To be a great human should be enough!
    Don’t shame Clemente by putting him in with these evil jerks!

  2. Victoria Evans

    I support the film “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories” and Director Richard Rossi’s upcoming conclave with Pope Francis regarding Clemente’s canonization. As a big fan of Clemente, I’ve watched prior documentaries on his life and read every book I could get my hands on. Other biographies missed the boat, however. Richard Rossi’s movie is the first film to capture Clemente’s Christlike essence and the spiritual theme of his life, the Bible verse John 15:13. The film was a godsend to me, reaching me at a time of despondency in my life and showing me what life is about, loving our neighbor and giving and making a difference by meeting the real needs of disadvantaged people, the way Roberto did.

  3. I’m not a religious person, but I agree 100% with this fine article that if anyone is deserving of this honor, it is Roberto Clemente. He was not cloistered as a celibate priest, he shone his light on the world’s stage as an elite athlete, and lived a good and godly life as a fine human being. The timing is ordained. Pope Francis, as the article states, is Latin American like Clemente, and also seems to possess the ability to break the stained glass barrier and think unconventionally. Yes, the idea may seem out of left field to some, but for those of us who love Roberto Clemente and Mr. Rossi’s beautiful film, canonizing this great right fielder is the right thing for Pope Francis to do.

  4. Thank you, Heather Adams for your coverage. For readers interested in additional info, check out new articles in Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salt Lake Tribune, Charisma, Washington Times, and Tribune Review about Richard meeting with Pope Francis regarding his film “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories” and the Clemente canonization. The merits of this movie and Mr. Rossi’s campaign will stand the test of time, regardless of ad hominem attacks, jokes, or efforts to impugn him. I know him to be a man of grace and that much of what is written online about him to be untrue. For the sins he has committed, he has repented and received God’s forgiveness. He has sought after God and lives peacefully with his wife of 30 years and 2 children in Hollywood, CA. where he has ministered to the real needs of people with compassion. Judge him for the work’s sake and take a look at “Baseball’s Last Hero” and open your heart to the message: “Greater love hat no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends…”

  5. As reported in Religion News Service, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, the campaign for Clemente’s canonization is collecting letters of support and stories of miracles related to Roberto Clemente. E-mail to ClementeCanonization@gmail.com with your contact information. E-mailing your letter of support and stories grants permission to share publicly.

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