Created on Friday, 07 December 2012 00:24 Written by Dustin Gabler / Senior Staff Writer
Nestled in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, The Clemente Museum is unlike any other museum in the city — it is by appointment only, located in a historic fire engine house, and it changes more frequently than many museums.
“I add a lot,” said Duane Rieder, the museum’s executive director. “I’m certainly buying things faster than Carnegie. It is just more affordable. A Clemente photograph could range from $500 to $2,000, while Carnegie may be buying a Monet painting for $500,000.”
Rieder began his archive of Pittsburgh Pirates legendary right fielder Roberto Clemente photographs and memorabilia in 1996 when Vera Clemente, Roberto’s wife, gave him about 50 photographs to take back to Pittsburgh from Puerto Rico because they were getting wet in her basement.
Roberto’s wife’s contributions can be seen throughout the museum, which changed from an archive to a museum in 2006. Although Vera Clemente hasn’t loaned Rieder many items, what she has loaned him are some of the most valuable in the building. Her contributions include his two World Series rings, two of his 12 Gold Gloves, one of his four Silver Bats and plenty of personal photographs of the Hall of Famer, who played with the Pirates from 1955 to 1972.
“We don’t have a lot from them [the Clemente family], but what we do have are some incredible items,” Rieder said. “Even the photographs are very personal photos that were never before seen.”
One of the most impressive items in the museum is a pair of Clemente’s cleats from the 1967 season. Only three pairs of cleats that the former Pirate wore are known to exist — one is owned by the Clemente family, one by the Pirates and the last pair by Rieder.
“I bought [the cleats] off his best friend in Pittsburgh, Phil Dorsey,” Rieder said. “They’re just incredible and very rare. Everyone wants to buy them because they are so rare. They sit on the 1971 World Series home plate from Three Rivers Stadium and truly make an awesome exhibit.”
Another exhibit, located on the second floor of the museum, is the Silver Bat display. It is a favorite of Elizabeth Meyer, the assistant director and only other full-time employee at the museum.
“We have baseballs surrounding the bat hand-painted by Duane to look like the [American] flag,” Meyer said. “The white ones are signed by famous athletes, coaches and musicians. I think it’s cool to see Dan Marino, Mario Lemieux, Franco Harris and all of the other notable people who have come through here.”
With items ranging from a 1909 Forbes Field seat, personal letters between Clemente and famed Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey Jr. and several of Clemente’s signed bats, it’s no surprise that the several members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum were thoroughly impressed when they visited in 2006.
“They were here in 2006 and were completely blown away. That was when we were just getting started, too,” Rieder said. “They don’t have a lot of Clemente items. I probably have 100 times what they have.”
Some of the more impressive items that receive little publicity are Clemente’s jerseys, which range from Pirates jerseys to his jersey from the first professional team he played for — the Santurce Crabbers of the Professional Baseball League of Puerto Rico.
To give visitors a more personal experience, several of these jerseys and plenty of the memorabilia are not protected by glass.
“We’re not like typical museums where everything you see is behind glass,” Meyer said. “Of course, we don’t want you to touch the items, but I think it gives everything a much more personal touch.”
The museum is looking to move into the future with a more hands-on approach. While Clemente’s contracts and family photographs attract many older visitors, children like to see more interactive displays.
“We’re working toward making the museum more interactive and user-friendly,” Meyer said. “An audio-visual catch aspect where you can watch Clemente catch, throw and play would be cool. We’d like to be more hip and cool. It would make the museum more interesting to children.”
This New Year’s Eve will mark 40 years since the death of Roberto Clemente, who died when his plane went down while it was taking relief supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake struck the Central-American country. It’s no surprise that some of the younger generation are forgetting the famed right fielder.
“He’s a phenomenal humanitarian,” Meyer said. “Too often, athletes are celebrities. Kids need a role model. A lot of them choose one based on money but should pick one who’s doing good for the community. I want kids to keep his legacy living on and be excited about him.”
Rieder’s passion for Clemente has grown since being a fan of his as a child. Some will argue that Clemente was the best player to ever play the game. He had a cannon right arm, recorded exactly 3,000 hits and remains the only player to have the traditional five-year waiting period waived before being elected into the Hall of Fame.
Despite those and plenty of other statistics, Rieder won’t argue Clemente’s baseball prowess, but he will talk about his heroism.
“He died the way he lived. He gave his whole life to help people,” Rieder said. “I won’t say he’s the greatest baseball player ever, but without doubt, he’s the only true baseball hero.”