Essential Pittsburgh
5:37 pm
Mon August 18, 2014

The Great 21: Remembering Roberto Clemente

The statue of Roberto Clemente beside PNC Park is a memorial to the late player, who would have turned 80 years old today.
The statue of Roberto Clemente beside PNC Park is a memorial to the late player, who would have turned 80 years old today.
Credit Via Tsuji / Flickr

In October, a new play about Pirates legend Roberto Clemente is coming to Point Park University.

The musical, entitled 21, is written and composed by Alki Steriopoulos, who grew up in Pittsburgh. Steriopoulos began working on the play in 2007 but October will mark the debut of 21 as a full production.

Steriopoulos says he was compelled to write a musical about Clemente after writing a short story based on an incident where he first heard about Clemente’s death. After a New Year’s Eve party, Steriopoulos was falling asleep at the wheel. He had the radio on and woke up to the news flash of Clemente’s plane going down, just in time to avoid crashing into the back of an 18-wheeler.

“He had said, ‘If a man has the chance to make a difference in someone’s life, in life and doesn’t, then he hasn’t really been here.’ It started me thinking in so many ways, in fate or coincidence or synchronicity, everyone influences everyone else in ways sometimes that we can’t even know. In this case, I was here and was able to be a man and live a life because of Clemente’s death and there was no way that he could ever know that his death had saved my life.”

The musical focuses on Clemente’s life from his beginnings as a star in Puerto Rico until his death. Steriopoulos says the musical focuses on aspects of Clemente’s life that many may not have heard before. Clemente was especially influenced by the women in his life, including a deceased sister whose influence Clemente always carried with him as he played.

The musical 21 will premiere in Pittsburgh at the Playhouse Theater on October 17th and run through October 26th. It's presented by Point Park University’s Conservatory Theater Company.

Steve Blass and Clemente

Former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass also remembers Roberto Clemente on his 80th birthday. Blass was a teammate of Clemente's for nine seasons and together they led Pittsburgh to the 1971 World Series Championship.

Blass says Clemente was a guarded person as he tried to move beyond both the color stereotype and the language barrier between himself and the rest of the league. Despite these struggles, Blass remembers his former teammate as a kind person.

“He was a very proud person. Very, very bright, I think a lot more intelligent than people may have realized because English was his second language. Uncompromising in his principles. A good sense of humor, but somewhat guarded with people around him that he trusted and he felt that wouldn’t misinterpret him. I think he was reluctant many times to extend himself because of the language thing … it was an honor to be around him for the ten years I spent as a teammate.”

Blass says Clemente’s untimely death not only shook him and the team personally, but the entire city as a whole.

“I think the shoulders of the entire city of Pittsburgh slumped when we got that report that was confirmed. And it was. The level of shock was unreal … the grief was tremendous throughout the city and the ball club.”