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'Viva Roberto Clemente!'

Statue of one of baseball's most beloved figures unveiled at Branch Brook Park yesterday

Visitors entering Newark from the west will now be greeted by a likeness of one of professional baseball’s most beloved icons, the late Roberto Clemente, remembered as much for his humanitarianism as for his considerable exploits on the diamond.

A few thousand jubilant spectators Sunday came to the corner of Lake Street and Bloomfield Avenue, at the entrance of Branch Brook Park, for the official unveiling of a statue of Clemente, a Hall of Fame right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who died 40 years ago in a plane crash while delivering supplies to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.

“Bloomfield Avenue is one of the main arteries leading into the city of Newark and to have the statue placed here is a great honor,” said Councilman Anibal Ramos, who represents the largely Hispanic North Ward.

Immediately before the unveiling, parade marchers proceeded west along Bloomfield Avenue from Broadway, passing before a reviewing stand that included members of the Clemente family. (Click here for pictures from the parade.) Puerto Rican flags were displayed alongside the Stars and Stripes in honor of Clemente, the first Latino inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame and a native of the island.

Clemente had enjoyed a stellar baseball career by the time he died Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38, having been named an All-Star 15 times and belonging to two World Series championship teams. But it was his charity work that elevated him to the status of role model for all, regardless of ethnic background. Clemente, posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the inaugural Presidential Citizens Medal,  has been described as one of professional baseball’s last true heroes.

Referring to the city’s other Latin American communities as well as non-Latino residents, Councilman-at-Large Luis Quintana, speaking in Spanish, said the statue “is for all of us.”

“It’s a day for the whole city. It’s a day for all the children. Viva Roberto Clemente!” said Mayor Cory Booker.

“We’re honoring a great sports legend but we’re also honoring an individual for his great humanitarian efforts,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz. “Roberto Clemente said anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference but you don’t, you’re wasting your time on earth. Newarkers, it is important you don’t waste your time on earth.” 

Yesterday’s unveiling was the culmination of a 30-year dream for Luis Lopez, founder of Newark’s Roberto Clemente Little League and a key figure on the Clemente monument committee. Lopez yesterday described Clemente as “one of the greatest humanitarians in the world.”

“Roberto paved the way and set the highest standards for the next generations of baseball players to come,” Lopez said.

“Hopefully this statue will be a constant reminder for the hundreds of young people who will play on these fields,” he added.

Clemente’s son, Luis Roberto Clemente, thanked the people of Newark for helping sustain his father’s memory. A city grade school is one of several across the country to be named in Clemente’s honor.

“This monument belongs to all of you. That’s the way dad would have liked it to be done,” Clemente said. “I had no idea my father was so alive in Newark.”

The monument and bronze statue, a replica of the Clemente statue gracing PNC Park in Pittsburgh, was partly paid for with donations from Verizon and PSE&G, said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who lobbied the companies for assistance. It’s located near the ball fields of the Stephen Adubato Sports Complex.

Other private donors have also contributed, and donations are still being accepted. For information about contributing, call 201-407-1824, or mail a contribution, made out to the “Roberto Clemente Monument Committee,” to Roberto Clemente Monument Committee, 675 Parker St., Newark, NJ 07104.

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