The gift of a winter coat results in Hall of Fame friendship
FriendshipClemente and Kantrowitz

The gift of a winter coat results in Hall of Fame friendship

Sometimes the seemingly most 'insignificant action' is the seed of generational bonds

From left: Richard Kantrowitz, Roberto Clemente and Ken Kantrowitz. Photo courtesy of Sam Kantrowitz
From left: Richard Kantrowitz, Roberto Clemente and Ken Kantrowitz. Photo courtesy of Sam Kantrowitz

Batting averages, hits and All-Star selections are calculable. The outcome of a kind deed is harder to quantify, but generations after one simple act, two families still tally untold benefits.

Almost 70 years ago, Roberto Clemente arrived at Pearl and Isador Henry Kantrowitz’s East End house. Clemente had just come to Pittsburgh following his 1954 selection by the Pirates. It was cold in western Pennsylvania, and the Jewish couple gave the young Puerto Rican baseball player a winter coat.

“That's the story my father told me,” Henry and Pearl’s grandson Sam Kantrowitz told the Chronicle.

Sam Kantrowitz isn’t sure who in the Pirates organization introduced his grandparents to Clemente, but Henry Kantrowitz was a season ticket holder, an accountant and involved in raising money for March of Dimes.

Clemente became legendary.

Between 1955 and 1972, perhaps the only thing surpassing the player’s athletic prowess was his altruism. Apart from totaling 3,000 hits, 240 home runs, 1,305 RBI, 15 All-Star selections, 12 Gold Gloves and helping the Pirates win two World Series, Clemente spent offseasons serving in the United States Marine Corps and performing countless acts of charity.

Following a 1972 earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, Clemente arranged a series of flights stocked with aid packages. After learning that corrupt government officials were preventing shipments from reaching the intended recipients, Clemente accompanied an additional set of supplies. He boarded a DC-7 aircraft loaded with aid, but the overstocked plane crashed while flying over the Atlantic Ocean. All five travelers died.

Clemente was mourned.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn eulogized the former Pirate and said, “He gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.”

The White House issued a statement from President Richard Nixon: “Every sports fan admired and respected Roberto Clemente as one of the greatest baseball players of our time. In the tragedy of his untimely death, we are reminded that he deserved even greater respect and admiration for his splendid qualities as a generous and kind human being.”

New York City Mayor John Lindsay gave Puerto Rico’s newly inaugurated governor Rafael Hernandez Colón a plaque reading, “There are many things that bind the eight million people of New York and the people of Puerto Rico together. None of them are more outstanding today than the grief felt over the loss of Roberto Clemente, an outstanding baseball player and humanitarian.”

Photo by macwagen via Flickr at

Almost two years after Clemente’s death, his longtime friend Henry Kantrowitz died.

Sam Kantrowitz, who was born in 1976, never met either of the men but said his earliest memories involve Clemente’s widow, Vera, and their three young sons: Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto and Roberto Enrique (Ricky).

“Every spring, the Clemente family would come back to Pittsburgh and we would have brunch in my grandmother’s house,” Kantrowitz said. “They still had their house out in Green Tree, and so they would come and stay there. One of the earliest memories I have was with my dad going out and picking up Vera and Roberto and Luis, and their younger brother Ricky, from that house.”

The trek would result in hours of enjoyment at Pearl Kantrowitz’s home.

“We would have a nice big brunch out in the backyard and Vera and the boys were there, and we would just kind of hang out,” Sam Kantrowitz said.

Years went by, and the families stayed close. They sat together at baseball games. They arranged to see each other when traveling. The families partnered on various nonprofit work.

For Richard Kantrowitz, so much of those efforts were about keeping Roberto Clemente’s memory alive, Sam Kantrowitz said. The relationship began with Richard Kantrowitz’s parents, but that friendship between Henry and Pearl Kantrowitz and Roberto and Vera Clemente was “just passed on to their children.”

When Pearl Kantrowitz died in 2007, Roberto Clemente Jr. served as a pallbearer. And when Richard Kantrowitz died this past April, Roberto Clemente Jr. again was a pallbearer.

“Roberto was actually one of the last people that my father saw,” Sam Kantrowitz said. “He went to visit him, I think, two days before he passed, and Luis Clemente talked to my father a day before he died.”

Relationships are about being there “in the good times and in the bad times as well. That’s what family does,” Roberto Clemente Jr. told the Chronicle.

Ricky Clemente, Beckett Kantrowitz, Luis Clemente, Sam Kantrowitz, Roberto Clemente Jr. Photo courtesy of Sam Kantrowitz

Sam Kantrowitz and Roberto Clemente Jr. are both fathers.

Both men said the next generation of Kantrowitzes and Clementes must remain connected.

“We are family,” Roberto Clemente Jr. said. “The connection will be forever, cherished.”

When asked how it’s possible that giving a relative stranger a winter coat almost 70 years ago could result in such lasting kinship, Roberto Clemente Jr. replied: Certain events “may seem like they’re a very small thing, almost an insignificant action at that moment, just a kind gesture. But when you look back at the legacy of a relationship — that’s what kindness, grace, helping and being caring is about. It bonds human souls.”

“!Arriba! The Heroic Life of Roberto Clemente,” published by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) features a chapter written by Pittsburgher Howard Elson recounting the special relationship that the Clemente family had with the Kantrowitz family. The book can be purchased on the SABR website,, and on PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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