Call it a homerun at Roberto Clemente State Park.
It’s at the borough’s only state-sponsored park in Morris Heights where officials pulled the drape off the statue of Roberto Clemente, who helped shatter the racial divide of major league baseball during the 1950s.
But Clemente sealed his imaged as a true humanitarian, dying in a plane crash while enroute to aid victims in quake-ravaged Nicaragua on December 31, 1972.
He was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame a year later as the first Latin-American.
The same year state park officials opened the 25-acre waterfront park in his name.
“He was the first Latin superstar,” said Roberto Clemente Jr., the baseball legend’s son. “He used it as a platform to become an activist and help others.”
The life-size bronze sculpture, resting on a black pedestal, depicts Clemente’s major milestone – raising his baseball hat after hitting his 3000th hit for the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 30, 1972, capping an end to 18 seasons as a ballplayer where he earned a World Series MVP award in 1971 and 12 Gold Glove Awards.
Lobbying for a statue was considered a “no-brainer” for Goya Foods, the Spanish-food conglomerate, where Goya’s director of public relations Rafael Toro came up with the idea after visiting the park during a Goya-sponsored dominoes tournament two years ago.
“I didn’t see enough of Clemente,” said Toro. “And I asked ‘no one’s ever thought about putting up a statue?’”
Bob Unanue, Goya’s president, agreed. “It was long overdue.”
It certainly came as a surprise to everyone when executive vice president Peter Unanue referred to the 3000-pound statue as the “first Puerto Rican statue to be erected in New York City.”
Goya soon commissioned the project to sculpter Maritza Rodriguez, spending two years crafting the seven-foot statue.
“When I was working on it late at night I remember I’d say ‘Ayudame Roberto! Help me,’” said Rodriguez, in tears at the unveiling.
The presentation coincides with the park’s 40th anniversary, where a multi-renovation project is underway.
Upgrades to the existing baseball field, a new jungle gym and the front plaza are just some of plans for the sprawling park.
The statue, the centerpiece to the upgrades, will rest at the front of the park.
Reach David Cruz at 718-742-3383.David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383