Roberto Clemente once hit a home run that took more than 40 years to land. When asked about the particular bat that lifted much more than a single ball, Clemente’s son recently said, “It’s amazing. It shows what dad’s legacy is still doing.”
On July 24, the son, Roberto Clemente Jr., as well as Lenny Silberman and several friends traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., to recount the lessons of Pittsburgh’s iconic Pirate and tell an unheard story of a Torah’s provenance at Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC).
As temperatures reached the mid-90s at the co-ed residential camp located roughly 70 miles from Pittsburgh, 400 campers soaked in the totals and tales of Roberto Clemente.
Born Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker, the gifted right-fielder played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Between 1955 and 1972, Clemente collected such accolades as the National League MVP Award (1966), World Series MVP Award (1971), National League Batting Champion (1961, 1964, 1965, 1967) and the National League Gold Glove Award (1961-1972). He was also a two-time World Series Champion (1960 and 1971). In 1973, with a lifetime batting average of .317 and 3,000 career hits, Clemente’s legacy was enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., becoming the first Latin American player to enter baseball’s Hall of Fame.
As campers learned, Clemente is remembered not only for his accomplishments as a Pirate, but also for his support of a community.
“Besides being this incredible sports role model for all of us, he was a role model for humanity,” said Silberman. “Roberto was selfless; he always had stories about helping others.”
Perhaps paradigmatic of Clemente’s generosity is that in 1972, after a devastating earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, Clemente chartered and accompanied a plane full of aid for delivery to victims. Shortly after takeoff from the San Juan-Isla Verde International Airport in Puerto Rico on Dec. 31, 1972, the DC-7 aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All five passengers, including Clemente, were killed.
“I always think about how do you teach lessons to the young Jewish generation about stories of the past, and how do we transmit our values?” asked Bobby Harris, who attended Sunday’s program.
When Harris discovered how EKC received its Torah scroll, he quickly realized the answer to that question.
Between 1997 and 2003, Silberman served as EKC’s director. For much of his tenure the overnight camp, which is owned and operated by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, lacked a permanent Torah. Each summer, EKC improvised by borrowing a scroll from a Squirrel Hill congregation.
Near the end of 2001, Silberman was in his office when Rabbi David Lapp approached him. Lapp, who is director of the JWB-Jewish Chaplains Council, told Silberman that the military was closing bases in Iraq and that three Torah scrolls would be for sale.
Lapp asked if Silberman knew of anyone in the market.
“God was looking down at me,” recalled Silberman. “My dad had just passed away and I was looking for a way to permanently bring a Torah to camp.”
Of the scrolls that Lapp mentioned, one was big, one was medium-sized and one was small.
“I wanted the big one, but there was no one to do hagbah,” Silberman chuckled, noting that few campers would be able to raise a large scroll.
On the spot, Silberman agreed to purchase the small 150-year-old scroll for $8,000.
At the time, he lacked the funds to pay, but the solution to his problem revealed itself a few months later. In early 2002, he heard about a national sports convention in Atlantic City, N.J. He took his prized Clemente game bat with him in the hopes of selling it.
“Roberto Clemente used this bat. It was in his hands,” said Silberman. “For years, I had been watching the bat go up in value.”
A dealer from Tennessee agreed to pay $8,000, the exact cost of the Torah.
“I remember after he gave me the money I kissed the bat goodbye; it’s like a baseball thing, when you hit a home run,” said Silberman.
After a quick restoration and the addition of a new cover, Silberman dedicated the Torah the following summer in memory of his father, Herbert, a Holocaust survivor, and in honor of his mother, Marianne.
For years, no one at EKC knew of their Torah’s backstory. But when Harris, a friend and director of Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Ga., started asking questions, Silberman, now the CEO of Henry Kaufmann Camps, decided to let him in on the secret of Clemente’s bat.
“I thought this is an amazing thing,” said Harris. “I wanted kids to understand how the Torah came to be at Emma Kaufmann.”
So with Silberman, and the camp’s approval, the parties started searching for Roberto Clemente Jr. The search took two years.
“I got a note from Lenny and when I read it, it was amazing to me,” said Clemente Jr. “I told my brother Luis, ‘A bat that this man had just got a Torah for this camp.’”
Clemente Jr. offered to help in any way he could as part of a program to teach campers about his father.
When the weekend finally arrived, stories, videos and handouts explained not only who Roberto Clemente was and what his legacy is, but how EKC’s Torah continues the tradition. Accordingly, when Clemente Jr. came to speak on a recent Sunday, he was met with all the warmth and admiration that 400 kids could offer.
“It was truly mind blowing for me,” said Clemente Jr. “The love that I felt there was very impactful.”
Throughout his visit, campers asked for autographs, photographs; one child even wanted to play catch with the son of the Hall of Fame great.
While Clemente Jr. made time for those who singled him out, his biggest hit was sharing a message to the group.
“I made them show me their index finger,” he recalled.
“Take a look and see what you see,” he told them. “Your fingerprint makes you unique. No one will ever be able to match that in the world, so whatever you touch, touch in a positive way.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.