Each year, the Roberto Clemente Award is presented to the Major League Baseball player who, like the Hall of Famer himself, best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field. Originally known as the Commissioner's Award, it has been presented by Major League Baseball since 1971. In 1973, the award was renamed after the Pittsburgh star following his death in a plane crash while he was delivering supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
Each MLB Club annually nominates a player to be considered for the Award in tribute to Clemente's achievements and character. This year, the Reds nominated first baseman Joey Votto. Votto seeks to become the first Reds player to win the award since Hall of Fame shortstop and Cincinnati native Barry Larkin won in 1993. Since the award’s inception over 50 years ago, two Reds players have taken home the hardware: Larkin and Pete Rose (1976).
Although Larkin won the award nearly 30 years ago, he still remembers the honor fondly and continues to try to emulate Clemente in his everyday life. Larkin was an active member of the community early in his career, but his awareness and admiration for Clemente began at a much younger age.
One of Larkin’s closest childhood friends was Leo Cardenas Jr., son of former Reds player Leo “Chico” Cardenas. Cardenas Sr. was Cuban, so Larkin was very aware of Latin players as a youngster and as a result, he became a huge Clemente fan. In fact, despite living in Cincinnati and being a Reds fan, he couldn’t help but also root for the Pirates, purely because of his love for Clemente. As Larkin grew up, he learned more about the man off the field and not just the extremely talented player on it. What Clemente represented and the circumstances of his passing really stuck with Larkin from that point forward.
“I just thought what a great story and great man,” Larkin said. “He was somebody that I truly respected for his play on the field as well as what he did off the field. And then to have that same opportunity -- and I pledged at that time that if I ever got the opportunity, I would do something similar -- so to be able to follow through with that was a great opportunity.”
Larkin made good on his intentions, helping spearhead several initiatives during his playing days. Most notably, Larkin was heavily involved with the Caring Program for Children, which raised money for underprivileged children in Cincinnati based on his on-field activity. Initially, the program raised several hundred thousand dollars for these children of the working poor. The local initiative then grew to a statewide one as both Larkin and Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. teamed up to create a friendly interstate rivalry that helped generate even more money in Ohio. From there he helped turn it into a national program called Caring Team of Athletes where a player from every team was involved. Combined, Larkin and his colleagues raised over $4 million for underprivileged children around the country.
Larkin participated in plenty of other community efforts during his playing days. There was Barry’s Bunch, which gave kids in underserved communities the opportunity to attend a Reds game. He visited local schools to deliver positive messages as a part of Breaking Barriers, a baseball-themed character education program with curriculum based on the values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson. Larkin also donated his time and money to many charities.
A year after winning the Clemente Award, Larkin also won MLB’s Lou Gehrig Award, given to the player who best exhibits the character and integrity of Lou Gehrig, both on the field and off it. Additionally, he was a two-time finalist for the Branch Rickey Award, which recognizes “service over self.”
Long after his retirement in 2004, Larkin continues to use his platform for the betterment of others. In addition to his role as a Reds broadcaster, he also works as senior advisor to the Reds president/chief operating officer where he participates in the execution of the team’s annual diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, among other duties.
Larkin also remains a part of baseball at the league level. Last year, Larkin began serving as one of the vice presidents of the MLB Players Alumni Association, which was formed in 1982 to promote the game of baseball, raise money for charity, inspire and educate youth through positive sport images and protect the dignity of the game through former players.
Clearly, Larkin has followed in the footsteps of the man he looked up to as youngster, both in terms of his on-field play and, more importantly, his off-the-field contributions.
“The individual accolades as a player are great, but I feel like the things that really have true meaning are when people say they appreciate you for what you’ve done in society,” Larkin said. “For the impact that you’ve made using your platform, to me that is the essence of being an athlete. Or at least it was for me, as someone who grew up in this city and grew up the way that I did with the values my mom and dad instilled in me as a young man.”
But you don’t have to be a Major League Baseball player to make a difference. Everyone has the platform to make the world a better place.
“Everyone’s not going to be a professional baseball player or professional athlete. But we will be a pro at something,” Larkin said. “It’s so much easier to smile than to frown, to be kind than to be mean. So I feel like everyone has an opportunity to use whatever they have at their disposal, their platform to make a positive impact on other folks. You never know what’s going on in somebody else’s life. So just be thankful for what you have and use what you have, use whatever platform you have to be a positive influence.”