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Remembering Roberto Clemente, 40 years later

Dec 31, 2012, 11:40 AM EDT


Not a New Year’s Eve goes by where I don’t, for at least a few minutes, remember Roberto Clemente. For it was New Year’s Eve 1972 — 40 years ago today — when Clemente died a hero, trying to airlift relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Clemente was truly heroic and brave, not because he was forced into some dire situation. He was heroic precisely because he didn’t have to face anything at all if he didn’t want to. He was a man of means and status and he could have ushered in 1973 in comfortable circumstances in his native Puerto Rico, writing checks to a relief fund to help those earthquake victims.  He could have organized a benefit.  But he didn’t. He sent on relief supplies himself, and when he realized that some of supplies he was sending to Managua were being pilfered by crooked officials, Clemente got on board the next flight himself to ensure that they got to those who needed them the most.  It was the last decision he’d ever make.

The plane took off a little after 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve with five on board. The plane — overloaded and in poor mechanical condition to begin with — encountered problems almost immediately.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but it was too late. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile from the coast, killing all aboard. Clemente’s body was never recovered.

As you prepare to welcome the new year, take a few moments to learn more about Roberto Clemente. Not just the circumstances of his death and the broad arc of his career, each of which are well known. Learn about the weird stuff. The not-so-great stuff. The funny stuff. Clemente may have the earned status of a hero, but he was really interesting — sometimes even kinda annoying — beyond that. We have this understandable tendency to turn heroes into saints, but knowing all of the little and random things about Clemente makes him far more human than we typically think of him, and that in turn makes his heroism seem all the greater. Greater precisely because it wasn’t his duty to do what he did. It was his choice.

(Note: some of these thoughts and words first appeared in a post three years ago. I kinda liked how I said it then, so I’m plagiarizing myself a bit).

  1. historiophiliac - Dec 31, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    Tonight, a toast to Clemente.

    • cur68 - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:06 PM


    • chill1184 - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:51 PM


  2. Jackson - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    They do not already include it, but after reading more about him and his life, I think one of my New Year’s Resolutions is going to be to do more charity work.

  3. mybrunoblog - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    ‘Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends’
    John 15:13

    Clemente lost his life trying to help others in need. He was a special man far beyond baseball. RIP Roberto.

  4. joewilliesshnoz - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    Ariba, amigo !

  5. dirtyharry1971 - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:58 PM

    A true hero who should be honored the way Jackie Robinson has been but for some reason MLB keeps dropping the ball on this.

    • 18thstreet - Dec 31, 2012 at 2:43 PM

      They did name an award after him.

    • felixinmiami - Dec 31, 2012 at 3:52 PM

      Many Latino players have always considered them the Jackie Robinson for Latino players, especially the dark skinned Latinos because he had TWO strikes against him: not only was he black, there was a huge language disparity between Latino players and their organizations. I believe he should just as recognized as Jackie.

  6. natstowngreg - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:14 PM

    Well said, sir, then and now.

    The news was devastating for a 19-year old college sophomore and Pirates fan. This was before several decades’ worth of age and experience taught me that being good at sports doesn’t make one a hero. The picture of Roberto Clemente that has emerged, to be sure, is not one of some candidate for sainthood. But this was a man who endured a great deal to reach the stature he attatined in baseball. The qualities that could make him difficult also drove him to excel on the fiels — and to ignore warnings of danger. The more human, well-rounded portrait diminshes neither Clemente the great baseball player, nor Clemente the real hero.

    • mazblast - Dec 31, 2012 at 2:23 PM

      Ditto that. I was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time, a Pirates fan since I was seven even though my family left the Pittsburgh area when I was nine, and an absolute Clemente devotee. I was at his very last game, the tragic (for Pirates fans) Game 5 of the NLCS (half a million people claim they were at Riverfront that day; I have the scorecard to prove I really was there, down to the “WP” notation for the last play).

      I think of him every New Years Day. This was horrible, not for Clemente the ballplayer (his time was winding down though hardly over) and Pirates and baseball fans so much as for what he could have accomplished after his playing days were done.

      He was no saint, but he was a great ballplayer and more importantly a great man.

  7. vitoluca1 - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    Live your life caring for your fellow man . That is all the Great One would expect from us.

    • ptfu - Dec 31, 2012 at 5:15 PM

      Well, presumably Wayne Gretzky approves this message. I don’t quite see how a hockey star fits on a baseball blog though…

      • natstowngreg - Dec 31, 2012 at 6:55 PM

        Bob Prince called Clemente The Great One on his Pirates radio broadcasts. Just so you know.

      • dford6 - Jan 1, 2013 at 10:50 PM

        Clemente was called “The Great One” long before Gretzky became famous. Plus Clemente really raised the bar big time as far as real greatness goes by dying a true hero’s death.

  8. hojo20 - Dec 31, 2012 at 2:23 PM

    The plane he boarded didn’t seem safe.

  9. florida76 - Dec 31, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    I’m not exactly sure who is pushing Clemente for sainthood, we just have to accept the reality this was much more than a legendary player who won multiple world titles(this is more rare than people think). Also not sure who would think Clemente was annoying if they really understood his story, and the type of adversity he faced. There were actually members of the media and elsewhere who called him “Bob”, instead of Roberto. Clemente was a proud man, especially of his heritage, so you can see how insulting this would be.

    A trailblazer for the Latin ballplayer, and a person who truly cared about the less fortunate, is simply a unique individual. For those too young to have seen Clemente, he had the combination of playing the game at the elite level with style, along with tremendous hustle. He made plays I’ve seen other HOF players give up on. This is the classic case of a player who can’t be solely judged on statistics, as incredibly impressive as they are.

    • mazblast - Dec 31, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      Even Bob Prince, the voice of the Pirates on KDKA (“Ahrn City, the beer that brings you baseball!”) and a great friend of Roberto, called him Bob or Bobby at times. It was the custom of the times, right or wrong, a custom that (in my opinion fortunately) has faded over the years.

      I understand why he may have taken exception, although it would not bother me personally.

  10. hushbrother - Dec 31, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Little-known fact: Neil Walker’s father, Tom, Clemente’s teammate, was going to travel with him on the ill-fated flight, but made a last-minute decision not to go. That’s about the only saving grace for Pirates fans.

  11. Minoring In Baseball - Dec 31, 2012 at 11:49 PM

    One of my dad’s most prized possessions is his Clemente rookie card. Too bad I’ll never find a treasure like that in my card collection. New Year’s toast to Roberto!

  12. 6stn - Jan 1, 2013 at 4:00 AM

    My Uncle used to take me to Cardinal games in the 1960s. We always saw the Pirates, Giants, or Braves. Clemente, Mays, and Aaron. “They play the way the game should be played.” Clemente lived the way more pro athletes should live: by good works and self-sacrifice off the field, not just charity golf tournaments and press releases.

  13. richardrossirecoveringfundamentalist - Jun 21, 2014 at 5:30 PM

    Breaking News: Roberto Clemente Next Up for Sainthood, reported in LA Times, Washington Post:

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