By Glen Sparks
(The recent death of retired NBA superstar Kobe Bryant made me think about Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, who perished in an airplane crash on December 31, 1972, while on a mercy mission. Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 in southern California.)
A massive earthquake struck near Managua, Nicaragua, at about 12:29 a.m. local time, Dec. 23, 1972. The temblor measured 6.2 on the Richter scale. Within one hour, strong aftershocks of 5.0 and 5.2 struck the area.
Roberto Clemente of Carolina, Puerto Rico, grew up in a family of limited means. As a boy, Roberto worked in the fields alongside his dad, cutting down sugar cane and then loading and unloading it onto pick-up trucks. On off days, Roberto played softball and baseball. Not surprisingly, he liked to show off his arm.
Al Campanis, a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, first saw Clemente during a tryout camp in 1952. Campanis rated Clemente’s arm strength as A+, gave his fielding an A and his hitting also an A (“turns head but improving”). He had “+” running speed, according to the report. Campanis wrote down that the 18-year-old “has all the tools and likes to play. A real good-looking prospect.”
Clemente was still in high school, though. Campanis waited to sign his superstar-to-be. The Dodgers finally inked Clemente on Feb. 19, 1954, supposedly for a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. That made the prospect a “bonus baby.”
According to the rules, the Dodgers had to keep Clemente on the team’s major league roster or risk losing him during an offseason draft. Brooklyn assigned him to the minor league Montreal Royals and hoped for the best. The Pittsburgh Pirates swept in and drafted Clemente in November of ’54. “Thus, we lost Roberto,” Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi said many years later.
The Nicaragua earthquake killed approximately 6,000 people and injured another 20,000. More than 250,000 people were left homeless. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed, including most of the area hospitals. Several fires, fueled by dry-season winds, broke out. Police and soldiers patrolled against looting.
Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955. He struggled to hit for power in his early years and did not reach double figures in home runs for a single season until 1960. That year, he also made his first All-Star team. He ended up playing in 15.
The right-handed batter topped the National League in hitting for the first time in 1961 (.351). He retired with four batting crowns and hit a career-high .357 in 1967. His run of 12 straight Gold Glove seasons also began in 1961. Fans, teammates, opposing players, everyone, marveled at his superhuman throwing arm from right field. Broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “He (Clemente) could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”
Clemente won the N.L. MVP in 1966. He finished in the top 10 in voting eight times and collected at least 200 hits in a season three times. On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente smacked a double against Jon Matlack of the New York Mets. It was his 3,000th career hit. And his final one during a regular-season game. Richie Ashburn, the Hall of Fame outfielder turned broadcaster, had asked Clemente a few months earlier when he might get his landmark hit. “Well, uh, you never know,” he responded. “I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen.” Vera Clemente said many times that her husband thought he would die young.
The relief effort in Nicaragua began right away. The people needed food, clothing, medical supplies. Everything. Red Cross volunteers flew in from Mexico, the United States and other countries. Tactical hospital units flew in from Fort Hood, Texas, and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Teams from Doctors Without Borders, a newly formed medical assistance group based in Paris, France, arrived.
Unfortunately, according to many reports, most of the aid did not reach the scores of needy people. Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza stockpiled the supplies and kept them from the victims, especially from people who did not support his political regime. Reports of this action outraged Clemente. He decided to lead his own aid mission to Nicaragua.
The writers and Clemente didn’t always get along. Reporters described Clemente as the “dusky Puerto Rican” and the “fiery Puerto Rican,” according to David Maraniss’ 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Clemente hated that. He complained that reporters called him a “hot dog” and wrote that he malingered after injuries. Some reporters and broadcasters insisted on calling him “Bob” rather than “Roberto.” Clemente hated that, too. He once said “I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America.”
So, on New Year’s Eve, while revelers partied on, Clemente and four others took off from San Juan Airport and headed for Managua. Clemente, 38, had charted a Douglas DC-7 cargo plane, an aircraft infamous for its mechanical problems. To make matters ever riskier, the plane was overloaded with relief supplies by more than 4,000 pounds. Witnesses said the plane struggled to get into the air.
The DC-7 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after take-off at a little after 9 p.m. Radio reports of the disaster soon followed. U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships searched for the wreckage and for any survivors. The body of Clemente, as well as the three others in the plane, was never recovered. Besides his wife, he left behind three children.
Clemente hit 240 career home runs and batted .317 to go with his 3,000 hits. Baseball ushered him into the Hall of Fame in 1973. In death, though, this great right-fielder became more than one of the best baseball players of his time. He became a man to admire for all-time. Pirates General Manager Joe L. Brown said, “He’s a shining star to many, many people. He grows and grows over time. He doesn’t diminish.” Manager Bill Verdon, who played alongside Clemente in the outfield for several seasons, said, “It was like a nightmare when I heard (about Clemente’s death). … He was the greatest all-around baseball player during my era. He could do more things than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Pirates owner John W. Galbreath said, “The news (of Clemente’s death) has just jolted me. Roberto Clemente wasn’t only one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever known, he was one of the greatest persons I ever knew. … If you have to die, how better could your death be exemplified than by being on a mission of mercy.” Clemente himself said this: ”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”