In New York, Judge’s Roberto Clemente Award Win Carries Special Meaning

Aaron Judge
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sure it feels fantastic to win a Cy Young or Most Valuable Player award. It’s all your hard work and dedication to your craft being rewarded at the highest possible level. Aaron Judge has won an MVP award himself after swatting 62 home runs in 2022. But this year, he was honored with an even more prestigious award — one separate from the game, and one that is dedicated to one of the most altruistic professional athletes of any generation, Roberto Clemente.

Each year, one player from every team is nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, and one is honored as the recipient. Here are the criteria, via “The Roberto Clemente Award is bestowed annually to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

Winning this award is an incredible achievement for Judge, who started the ALL RISE Foundation in 2018 and has been a pioneer in supporting the Bronx, Fresno County, San Joaquin County, and his childhood home of Linden, California. The foundation facilitates several initiatives and programs including but not limited to student leadership development, youth character, health and well-being, and much more. Developing communities and providing the youth with the resources they need to become future leaders is at the crux of the foundation.

Judge is the first Yankees player to receive the award since Derek Jeter in 2009. Many baseball stars know the importance of using their resources to imbue the qualities of somebody like Clemente. But it is even more important for somebody like Jeter or Judge as public persons representing New York. Clemente is a hero, a legend — whatever word you want to use — to Puerto Ricans (and Latin America in general). And when I refer to Puerto Ricans, I’m talking about both those on the island and those who have migrated to the states, especially New York (Nuyoricans), of which there are many.

Take a drive through the different boroughs in New York, and you’ll notice Puerto Rican flags flying on streets, highways, apartment windows, store fronts, and more. Over the course of a little more than a decade from the mid-1940s to the late-1950s, over 700,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City; in the 1960s, that mark reached over a million. Throughout the next few decades, more islanders came to the city, while some who had migrated to the city earlier on had moved back to Puerto Rico for one reason or another. This resulted in a blending of the two cultures happening in both directions. Food, salsa, and other aspects of Puerto Rican culture spread through New York City, and New York culture, especially the Yankees, made its way back to the island. As a young adult back in 1976 from this New York Times piece put it, “Most Puerto Ricans… are Yankee fans.”

To this day, nearly 30% of people living in New York City identify as Hispanic or Latino. That makes for almost 2.5 million people. Of that, nearly 700,000 are Puerto Rican, and many others have moved to states and counties outside of the city. As such, Nuyorican culture and the Yankees are synonymous. Players such as Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada helped that in recent generations, but the connection traces back to the mid-1900s. In fact, Clemente himself was included in the migration from the island to New York.

Just a few weeks ago, I was at a small antique store in Queens looking for a lamp. I was unsuccessful, but on my way out, I caught a book out of the corner of my eye called Baseball’s Best: The Hall of Fame Gallery, originally published in 1977 and updated in 1980, featuring two-to-three-page blurbs about each member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I grabbed the book and immediately turned to Clemente’s spread and was reminded of a story that isn’t as well known I’d expect for somebody like him. In 1954, he signed his first big league contract with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Throughout his first season, he played sporadically, as there was a rule stipulating any player signed for a bonus above $6,000 had to be on the big league roster for two years or else would be Rule 5 eligible. The Dodgers mistakenly sent Clemente to Triple-A and then tried to hide him, but the Pirates noticed and snagged him later that winter. In a parallel universe, Clemente himself is a New Yorker.

But even though his personal relationship with the city was cut short, Clemente is still a large and visible part of New York. If you venture to east Brooklyn or the East Village in Manhattan, you’ll find two public schools (P.S. 15 and P.S. 13) also known as The Roberto Clemente School. Along the Harlem River in the Bronx, there is Roberto Clemente State Park. There are ball parks dedicated to Clemente as well in both Brooklyn and the Bronx. The Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in lower Manhattan is dedicated to treating mental health. And last but not least, just last month, The Paley Center for Media paid tribute to Clemente on the 50th anniversary of his Hall of Fame induction.

Despite never playing for a New York team, Clemente has roots all over this city because of what he represents to Puerto Rican culture. For Judge to put his name beside Clemente for his achievements as a community patron is special to not only him, but also all Nuyoricans. It’s one thing to be a great player; any baseball fan can appreciate that. It’s another to embody the character of Clemente as somebody who is front and center in the lives of many Puerto Rican people and kids in New York. Judge has shown in the past that he is aware of Clemente’s importance, making subtle tributes to the legend when the Yankees took on the Pirates in Pittsburgh on Roberto Clemente Day, but giving back to the people of the community is different. It shows an appreciation and respect for him and his people that is endlessly meaningful.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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6 months ago

Loved the insight and the Dodgers nugget, thanks Esteban