Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Keith's Key Kard Korner: Aug./Sept. 2009

1955 Topps #164 Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente was more than a terrific Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player. His legacy climbed to legendary proportions when he perished in an aviation accident on December 31, 1972, while en route to deliver emergency supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. His untimely death seemed to elevate this humanitarian’s legendary stature, although his unparalleled career need not have culminated with such a figurative tragic exclamation point to cement his legend.

The Pirates outfielder sporting #21 won twelve Gold Glove Awards, led his Pirates to two World Series titles, and carved out a .317 lifetime batting average. Clemente was the first Latino to win a World Series as a starter (1960), and first Latino to win an MVP award (1966). It is also remarkable that he finished his career with exactly 3,000 hits. This symmetrical statistic lends an eerie aura to his untimely death - as if destiny refused to intercede until Roberto met this hit benchmark so often associated with a Hall Of Fame threshold. Great play, humanitarianism, cultural pioneering, and circumstance of his passing all helped cement his popularity beyond his native Puerto Rico and into reverence as a true Latin American sporting pioneer.

Clemente’s 1955 Topps card (#154) is industry-recognized as his rookie card. The card’s very design and color appear nearly perfectly apropos for the celebrated icon.

With its rich forest-green background, the card is memorable as the hue fades from a saturated tone to a faded one as it moves from left to right, much like an abstract artist’s spewing paint sprayer nozzle being slowly extinguished as it moves eastward across the canvas. The crescendo of color gradually withering away seems to represent the "Field Of Dreams" that is baseball – brilliant chromatic grass through the spring and summer fading with the onset of autumn. In a more haunting fashion, the fading of vibrant color across the card symbolizes Clemente’s career: an endeavor that germinated into bounty and success fades into the blurry unknown like Roberto’s ill-fated flight somewhere over the Caribbean Sea.

Here, more than fifty years later, while the Pirates paint their seventeenth consecutive losing season in Pittsburgh, fans and collectors can still hold a most tangible representation of a man who knows how to win. Roberto Clemente reminds us that those who win off the field are those longest remembered ... and celebrated.

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