On New Year’s Eve 1972, Clemente chartered a plane for a humanitarian mission to earthquake-striken Nicaragua. Even though Clemente had some concerns about the plane’s safety, he flew. Clemente’s flight crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff, killing the baseball star and all four crew members.
In Tribute to Roberto Clemente
By Arthur Daley, The New York Times, January 2, 1973
One of the first news bulletins of the new year hit with a sickening jolt. In the motionless language of radio bulletins, announcement was made early yesterday that a plane on a mercy mission to stricken Nicaragua went crashing into the Caribbean and that Roberto Clemente, one of the Samaritans aboard the relief plane, presumably crashed to his death with it.
This is shocking news, distressing news. During his 18 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates the gifted Roberto had gained recognition as a man of towering dignity, highly esteemed not only as a person but as a ballplayer. He was a genuine superstar and few of his contemporaries could surpass him in skill. Roberto was the complete ballplayer. He did everything extraordinarily well. He could run, throw, field, hit and hit with power. These are the five ingredients on which players are rated and the Pirate outfielder ranked at or near the top in each.
He won four batting championships and one Most Valuable Player award. He had 13 seasons of over .300 and he still hit .312 last season when he supposedly was easing into the twilight of his career. Twilight? Roberto just didn’t seem to acknowledge it. At the somewhat advanced age of 37 in 1971 he batted .414 in the World Series with at least one hit in each of the seven games, thereby duplicating a feat that he had performed 11 years earlier in another Series against the Yankees.
If there was a smoldering resentment within Roberto that he never got the acclaim he deserved, he was entitled to such an attitude. Willie Mays was given instant acclaim when he first arrived on the scene and was endowed with superstardom almost immediately. But Willie the Wonder had the advantage of starting with the New York Giants and that put him in a matchless showcase. Roberto never had one in Pittsburgh.
When Giant writers in those early days would rattle off a list of Willie’s impossible catches, Pirate writers would dutifully recite impossible catches that Roberto made, all of equal value. But only Willie’s stuck in memory.
Many of Mays’s throws also became engraved enduringly in consciousness, but Roberto had a better and more accurate arm, one that never seemed to diminish in strength. He once made a throw home from the iron gate at right field in old Forbes Field. It reached the catcher on the fly. The distance was 460 feet. Such was his reputation that he scared runners, causing many to hold up rather than risk being shot down by his gunner’s arm.
Once he threw out a runner on a bunt, a rather fancy play for an outfielder to make. Bill Mazeroski, a teammate, attests to it and he is a man of great probity. It was a freak play, of course. It would have to be. The Pirate strategy with runners on first and second with none out was to have the third baseman race in for a bunt while the shortstop covered third. Outfielders instinctively played shallow. But this particular batter mangled his bunt, tapping the ball on the fly to the vacated shortstop spot. Baserunners hesitated and held up. Roberto came tearing in from the outfield, made a quick pickup and forced a runner at third.
Originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he may have been victimized by a quota system that some said was in effect in those unenlightened days. The Pirates drafted him from the Dodger farm system and thus did his advance toward stardom begin. Perhaps it would have been swifter and more noticeable in Brooklyn. Who knows? Also unknown is whether this would have made him a different kind of ballplayer.
Never a Dodger
Ebbets Field was a neat little playpen with all fences within easy reach of the Dodger clout circus of that era. But Roberto landed instead in Forbes Field, the most spacious ball park in the majors. Smart man that he was, he shunned the home run which might have tempted him in Brooklyn.
He became a nice line-drive hitter, spraying them in all directions, but his favorite target was the opposite field, right field. Awesome was his accumulation of hits over the years and last year he achieved a goal that only 10 ballplayers in all recorded history ever reached. A few days before the end of the season, Roberto lashed a double off the wall on one hop and the scoreboard became alive with the number, 3,000. He had just made his 3,000th hit.
“Roberto is the greatest ballplayer I ever saw,” often said his former manager, Danny Murtaugh. It is not too extravagant an estimate. Roberto was a great one in so many ways. He even went out with a flourish typical of the man, seeking to extend a helping hand to those in need.
Roberto Clemente: The Great One
The New Pittsburgh Courier, January 13, 1973
The Pittsburgh Courier joins Pittsburgh and the Nation in mourning the loss of this valiant soul.
Roberto Clemente, called “The Great One,” deserved the esteem in which he was held by his fellow Pittsburgh Pirate ballplayers and thousands of baseball fans here and elsewhere.
The athletic world was not the only area in which Roberto was considered “The Great One.” There was another side of Clemente that endeared him to many, many, people who knew of him as a compassionate soul, and who knew of his ever constant concern for his fellowman.
Little children, the sick and the well considered him a prince of a guy. When they needed help, when they needed as friend, Roberto Clemente was right there.
Roberto Clemente was one of five persons who lost their lives in a plane crash off the coast of his native Puerto Rico about 9:30 p.m. on New Years Eve.
Evidence of his ever present concern for mankind is in the fact that he was on a mission of mercy when his life was snuffed out. The plane was laden with supplies and bound for Managua to help sufferers in the disastrous earthquake.
Clemente’s exploits on the baseball field are well known. The winning of batting, Most Valuable Player, and record shattering awards were common-place for him.
Equally as common-place for Mr. Clemente were his endeavors in the field of human relations.
Roberto Clemente was a human man. He was a lovable person. He loved people. He was a black man but he went far, far beyond the limitations of race. Roberto Clemente loved all people. The pigmentation of their skin made no difference to him. If they needed help all he wanted to do was to be able to serve in whatever capacity he could.
Life was not always good to him. He was often maligned. Many times he was not given the recognition and admiration that was his due. It took some time for his greatness to get through to a reluctant public but eventually it came to the fore, like the knight in shining armour that he was.
Roberto Clemente is gone but he will not be forgotten. The Pennsylvania Senate has called on the Baseball Commissioner and his cohorts to waive the five year waiting period so that they can induct Clemente into the Hall of Fame immediately. This is to insure that the exploits of Roberto Clemente on the base pads will live forever.
The poor people whom he helped during his lifetime, the children, the elderly, the downtrodden, the unfortunate whom he often gave a helping hand to get a new lease on life may not have a Hall of Fame for all to see — but to them Roberto Clemente will never be forgotten, for they have an indelible imprint of Roberto Clemente in their hearts.
The athletic world has lost a superstar. The world generally has lost a fine Christian gentleman.
We bow our head in prayer for the soul of Roberto Clemente. We offer our sincere condolence to his wife and family.
Clemente’s teammates, to a man, say he was one in a million. One in particular, Willie Stargell, a great one in his own right, put it quite succinctly. “He was a helluva guy.”
We say Roberto Clemente was truly a great man. May his soul rest in peace.
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