Jorge L. Ortiz, writing for USA TODAY, recalls the day Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash.
Forty years ago Monday, I was a baseball-obsessed 11-year-old attending a New Year’s Eve party near my parents’ house when rumors spread that one of this island’s biggest stars had perished in a plane crash.
At first word was Orlando Cepeda was the victim, and that would have been a huge loss because the 1967 National League MVP was a popular figure and a future Hall of Famer.
But when it was confirmed that favorite son Roberto Clemente was the one who’d died, an indescribable grief enveloped nearly everybody in Puerto Rico.
Three months before, we had been riveted by Clemente’s pursuit of his 3,000th hit, a feat he accomplished on the last weekend of the 1972 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He became the 11th player and first Latino to reach the coveted mark, and the residents of this U.S. territory swelled with pride.
Now the source of such joy was gone at age 38, his body never to be found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Throngs rushed to the coastal area near the airport from which the plane had taken off, overloaded with relief supplies Clemente wanted to make sure reached the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
“We headed out to the beach closest to the crash area and it was packed with people. It was devastating news for everybody,” says former major league pitcher Jose Santiago, a close friend of Clemente. “People were going, ‘Are you sure he boarded the plane? Maybe he didn’t.’ Or claiming, ‘Oh, he’s got to be alive.’ Some would say, ‘He’s clinging to a rock in one of those little islands out there.’ “
In the days that followed, as Clemente’s death was accepted as reality, a photo of his 7-year-old son Roberto Jr. kissing a poster with his father’s picture became as heart-wrenching and iconic in Puerto Rico as the image of JFK Jr. saluting his father’s coffin was in the U.S.
On this latest trip home for the holidays, I have found the usual tributes to Puerto Rico’s first Hall of Famer. His name is attached to an arena, a stadium in his native municipality of Carolina and an avenue, as well as this year’s winter league baseball tournament.
And yet, while the 40th anniversary of Clemente’s 3,000th hit was celebrated with a ceremony in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, the most noteworthy commemoration of his passing is a musical about his life that played in a Santurce, P.R., theater earlier this month.
Baseball is no longer the dominant sport here, with the winter league constantly struggling to draw fans and stay afloat. Clemente’s dream of a “sports city” where youngsters could hone their skills was eventually fulfilled, paving the way for several future pros, but now the facilities are abandoned and in disrepair.
His family prefers the focus be on the way he lived, not how he died. And many Puerto Ricans have moved on.
The island has produced other luminaries, including a third baseball Hall of Famer in Roberto Alomar and a likely future one in Ivan Rodriguez, boxing champions such as Felix Trinidad and Wilfredo Gomez, singer Ricky Martin, Emmy-winning actor Raul Julia and former surgeon general Antonia Novello. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, is embraced in this commonwealth as one of its own.
Still, none are revered as deeply as Clemente, whose martyr-like death elevated his stature to near sainthood.
“The country was completely paralyzed by the news,” recalls Hector Lopez, a childhood friend who remained tight with Clemente. “The holiday season ended. People took down their Christmas trees and went into a national mourning.”
Though he remembers Clemente fondly, Lopez is open about his foibles, saying his friend was tight with money, was paid for conducting youth clinics and planned to charge for use of the sports city, which he envisioned as an athletic academy.
Regardless, four decades after he vanished, Clemente remains the rare elite athlete whose humanitarian deeds are remembered with as much admiration as his accomplishments as a player, which included two World Series titles, four batting crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and MVP awards in a regular season and a World Series.
Houston Astros prospect Carlos Correa, the first Puerto Rican to be taken No. 1 overall in the draft, points to Clemente’s social activism.
“He was a star but stayed humble, and he was good on and off the field,” says Correa, 18. “He’s a great example for all Puerto Rican players and will continue to be.”
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, probably the top player among a diminishing Puerto Rican contingent in the majors, has taken up the cause of abused and disadvantaged kids through his foundation. Molina says the chance to live up to Clemente’s legacy was a motivating factor.
“He did a lot of things off the field to help people, and he had a lot less (money) than we do these days,” Molina says. “If he did it, why shouldn’t we help others?”
Troubled by the prejudice he experienced in the U.S. as a dark-skinned Latino–which he felt put him two strikes behind in American society–Clemente spoke out against discrimination and was relentless in the pursuit of causes he believed in.
His impact extended through Latin America, where he was hailed as the Latino Jackie Robinson. Since 1973, Major League Baseball has handed out a Roberto Clemente Award to the player who embodies his combination of on-field excellence and community involvement.
Orlando Merced, who played the first seven of his 13 major-league seasons for the Pirates, grew up across from Clemente’s house, befriended his three sons and attended school with them. Merced sprung from the sports city and, as so many others here, considers Clemente his hero.
“Roberto Clemente created the dream for many of us to become professional players and to reach the major leagues,” Merced says. “He opened the eyes of the American teams to the talent that was here.”
The talent has diminished, and Clemente’s on-field legacy has receded in the Puerto Rican consciousness. His dignity and devotion to those less fortunate, however, continue to resonate.
As an 11-year-old, my response to losing Clemente was to put together an album of photos clipped from newspaper stories. Since then I’ve read books and numerous stories about him and also watched documentaries of his life.
I didn’t think I would learn much more about Clemente on this visit, and yet a few days ago my father, now a retired physician, told me of the time in the late 1960s when the perennial All-Star came to his office.
Seeking treatment for the back trouble that dogged him for much of his career, Clemente sat among the other patients and patiently waited his turn. It was an ordinary gesture by an extraordinary man, one that made his legend just a bit bigger in my eyes.
For the original report go to http://www.zanesvilletimesrecorder.com/usatoday/article/1794453&usatref=sportsmod