Baseball Way Back: Clemente had all the tools -- on and off the field
In the waning hours of 1972, Roberto Clemente could look back with satisfaction on an 18-year major league baseball career studded with glorious achievements.
He helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to World Series championships in 1960 and 1971. He won NL batting titles in 1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967, and would have captured a fifth in 1969 had a Pete Rose bunt single not pushed Charlie Hustle into the lead.
Clemente, whose Cooperstown plaque labels him a "rifle-armed defensive star," won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1961 to 1972.
Clemente was 1966 NL MVP and 1971 World Series MVP.
He was chosen for 15 All-Star Games.
On Sept. 30, 1972, he became the 11th major leaguer with 3,000 hits, when he doubled off Jon Matlack of the Mets.
Clemente, 38, was focused on a more urgent matter -- delivering food and medical supplies to the victims of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Managua, Nicaragua Dec. 23 and claimed approximately 5,000 lives.
On Dec. 27, 1972, it was reported a committee headed by Clemente in San Juan, Puerto Rico, collected some 22 tons of supplies and $50,000.
On Dec. 31, Clemente and four others left from San Juan International Airport in a propeller-driven four-engine DC7 loaded with supplies and bound for Managua. Clemente, it was said, wanted to ensure the supplies reached the intended recipients.
Shortly after takeoff, at 9:22 p.m., the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving no survivors.
As a young fan, I remember the shock of the loss of a player who had become a favorite, even though he didn't play for either Chicago team.
As Roger Angell wrote in "The Summer Game," Clemente played "a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before -- throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection, playing to win but also playing the game almost as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field."
Clemente hit especially well in day games, leading some to speculate he could have hit .400 if he played for the Cubs.
He hit one of the longest homers in Wrigley Field history, a 500-plus-foot blast that exited the ballpark just left of the center field scoreboard and landed across the street.
Clemente helped transform the Pirates from a second-division club that hadn't won a pennant since 1927 to a perennial contender.
As Jackie Robinson was for Black players, Clemente, who was born in Puerto Rico, was a trailblazer for Latino players, and both were brought to the big leagues by Branch Rickey.
Rickey was in charge of the Pittsburgh Pirates, when the Bucs took advantage of his old team, the Dodgers, which had signed Clemente to a bonus but left him vulnerable to be plucked by the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft after a year playing for the same Dodger farm club in Montreal that once had Robinson on its roster.
During his career, Clemente proved himself as a five-tool player. But he also displayed a sixth tool -- his humanity.
After his death, United Press International printed a short biography of Clemente written by Ira Miller and filled with pictures of highlights from his career. I bought it while I was attending grade school in Chicago's Budlong Woods neighborhood.
The biography painted a three-dimensional picture of an outspoken man filled with pride in his athletic gifts, compassion for others, and fearlessness in the face of injustice.
It recalled how he celebrated following the Pirates' 1960 World Series victory not in the locker room with teammates, but with fans gathering in Schenley Park near Forbes Field. And it recounted how Clemente had turned over $6,000 in donations on a night in his honor at Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh to pay the medical bills of poor disabled children.
The book also documented his encounters with discrimination.
Indeed, early in his career, his quotes in newspapers were written in dialect, and he was often referred to, against his wishes, as Bob Clemente -- his full name, by the way, was Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker.
One anecdote in the book relates how he and his wife visited a New York City furniture store and asked to see the showroom. Instead, they were made to wait before they were ushered into a room on the last floor, rather than the downstairs showroom.
When he said he wanted to see the showroom, he was told he didn't have enough money.
Clemente then flashed a wallet filled with $5,000 and asked if it was enough.
When he finally revealed his identity, he was offered a chance to look at seven floors of furniture and told, "We thought you were, like, another Puerto Rican."
Clemente put the money back in the wallet and walked out.
The book contains a moving forward by boxer Jose Torres.
Torres wrote about Clemente's commitment to bringing a Sports City to the children of Puerto Rico.
He said, "It was Roberto Clemente who moved Puerto Ricans in New York and in Puerto Rico. It was Clemente who showed the Puerto Rican people that his struggle was not only their struggle, but the struggle of every other Latin human being in a strange world, the United States.
"For Roberto Clemente was a true superstar and not just in baseball but in the whole game of life."