The so-called “Island of Enchantment” is world famous for the enormous quality of its players and boxers, but on our list of the 10 best athletes in Puerto Rico there is also room for figures who have excelled in basketball, tennis and athletics. Did we leave out any important names? Probably so, therefore, as we usually do at PanamericanWorld, we invite you to comment and share with our community your own Top 10 choices.
Puerto Rico participated for the first time in the Olympic Games at the London event, in 1948. Since then, this country has not missed any edition, not even that of Moscow, in 1980, amid the boycott by more than 30 nations, including the United States. Puerto Rican athletes have won ten Olympic medals. Their champions are Jasmine Camacho-Quinn in the 100-meter hurdles at Tokyo 2020, and tennis player Monica Puig, who surprised everyone by climbing to the top of the podium at the Rio 2016 Games. With their triumphs, they are guaranteed a spot among our top 10 Puerto Rican athletes in history.
The most well-rounded Latino baseball player of all time in Major League Baseball tops our list. Roberto Clemente shone on and off the field. His name is revered, and it is no coincidence that there are at least 12 statues of him today, six of them in Puerto Rico, five in the United States and another one in Nicaragua.
The “Carolina Comet,” as he was nicknamed, shone for 18 years in the Majors, always sporting the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His numbers are spectacular: he drove 3,000 hits, 240 home runs and batted in 1,305 runs. He led the Pirates to two World Series titles. He participated in 15 All-Star Games, won four batting championships, was the National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1966 and received 12 Golden Gloves for his extraordinary defensive quality as an outfielder.
On December 31, 1972, days after an earthquake struck Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, Clemente boarded a plane, loaded with humanitarian aid for the victims. The aircraft never reached its destination. It fell into the sea and the player’s body could never be recovered.
Clemente was acknowledged as the best athlete of the twentieth century in Puerto Rico. In his honor, Major League Baseball presents the “Roberto Clemente” award each year to the player who stands out the most for supporting communities.
This formidable boxer deserves a place among the 10 best athletes of Puerto Rico in history. His name stood out in 1974, after winning the amateur world title in Havana.
He then moved on to become a professional with a successful career. In 1977 he won his first World Boxing Council crown, after a KO win in Puerto Rico against South Korea’s Dong Kiung Yum. Afterwards, Gomez defended his title on 17 occasions and always put his rivals out of commission. His string of 32 consecutive wins by KO places him in the select group of pugilists with the best punch.
In 1989 he decided to retire with a record of 44 fights won, only three losses—one unforgettable fight in a historic duel against Mexico’s Salvador Sánchez—and a draw.
Related article: Roberto Clemente, the legend of the greatest Latino baseball player of all time
Orlando “Peruchín” Cepeda
Puerto Rico is one of the countries with the most inductees into the Hall of Fame. The second Puerto Rican to enter the so-called “Temple of the Immortals” was “Peruchín” Cepeda, in 1999.
This brilliant player excelled for three decades in the Major Leagues. In 1958 he won rookie of the year and, nine years later, was recognized as the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
In his 17-year career he wore the uniform of several franchises, although his best results were achieved with the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in three World Series and won the ring in 1967, with the Cardinals. His statistics show that he was an excellent hitter: he had an offensive average of 297, with 379 home runs and 1,365 RBIs.
Defensive mastery, timely batting and consistency for more than 15 years made “Pudge” Rodriguez one of the greatest catchers of all time in major league baseball.
Rodriguez holds the record for most games played as a catcher in the majors. In addition, he boasts the best percentage of runners caught in attempted robbery. He played in two World Series and won the ring with the Marlins in 2003.
During his brilliant career he received the American League Most Valuable Player award in 2009. He won 13 Golden Gloves and seven Silver Bats; in addition, he participated in 14 All-Star Games. His stat line was extraordinary with an average of 296, 2,844 hits, 311 home runs and 1,332 RBIs.
In 2017 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Puerto Rico has had great receivers in its history. “Pudge” has already made it to Cooperstown and for everyone, it is clear that Yadier Molina will also be acknowledged, five years after he decides to end his successful career with the Major Leagues.
“Yadi” has played 18 seasons in the majors, always with the St. Louis Cardinals. During this period, he has won two World Series rings, nine Golden Gloves and one Silver Bat. In 2018 he received the “Roberto Clemente” award for his support to the Puerto Rican communities most affected after the passage of Hurricane Maria.
In addition, Molina has defended, with great pride, the uniform of Puerto Rico in the four editions of the World Classic. In the two most recent ones (2013 and 2017), his team advanced to the final.
Felix “Tito” Trinidad
Trinidad has been considered one of the best welterweight boxers in history. His record includes world titles with three different organizations: the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Association, and the World Boxing Council. He closed his career with a record 42 fights won, 35 of them by KO, and suffered only three losses.
His most important victories were against Oscar de la Hoya and Macho Camacho.
The first Olympic champion deserves a place among the best athletes in Puerto Rico. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Puig was the big surprise. No one placed her among the favorites. To reach the finals she left behind players, such as Spanish tennist Garbiñe Muguruza and Czech tennist Petra Kvitova. In the match for the title, she defeated German player Angelique Kerber and entered the history of Puerto Rican sport.
Puig has won two WTA titles and six ITF singles titles. In addition, she won two medals at the Pan American Games: silver in Guadalajara 2011 and bronze in Toronto 2015.
Jose Juan Barea
Basketball is one of the sports that sparks the most interest in Puerto Rico. Among so many good players throughout its history we selected J.J. Barea, NBA champion with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
Barea played for 14 years at the NBA, with two franchises: Mavs and Timberwolves. This point guard averaged 8.9 points and 3.9 assists per game. In addition, he also shone with the Puerto Rican national team, winning the title at the 2011 Pan American Games and silver in the 2007 edition. To his record we add the gold medal won at the Central American and Caribbean Games of 2006 and 2010.
Alomar can perhaps be considered the most complete second baseman in major league history. He excelled in defense, so much so that he was awarded 10 Golden Gloves, but was also unstoppable with the bat, winning four Silver Bats.
His best moments were experienced with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he obtained two World Series championship rings. In 2011, Alomar was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. This year, an allegation of sexual harassment against the Puerto Rican cast a shadow over his figure. MLB decided to cancel his contract as a consultant, although the Hall of Fame clarified that it would keep its plaque “in recognition of his achievements in the game.”
The presence of Camacho-Quinn on our list of the best athletes in Puerto Rico is probably the most controversial.
At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games she had a very bitter experience, after being disqualified in the 100 meters hurdles. Five years later, at the Tokyo event, Camacho-Quinn entered the books, setting an Olympic record in this discipline, with a time of 12.26 seconds, in the semifinal race. Then, in the final, she fulfilled all predictions and won the gold medal, thus becoming the second Olympic champion of Puerto Rico.