On New Year’s Eve 1972, the world lost a quiet gentleman, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Roberto Clemente. The Puerto Rican-born Clemente was a four-time batting champion and a career .317 hitter. He hit a combined .336 in his only three seasons during the 1970s.
Clemente made his major league debut in 1955, and by 1960 came into his own, earning his first All-Star selection and hitting .310 in the 1960 World Series as the Pirates defeated the Yankees in 7 games. The following year Clemente batted .352 and won his first batting title. In the 13 seasons from 1960-1972, Clemente was a model of consistency, hitting over .300 12 times, earning 12 Gold Gloves and 12 All-Star appearances. He finished in the Top 10 in Most Valuable Player voting 8 times, winning the award in 1966 with a .357 average, 210 hits, and 110 RBI. Clemente was a fantastic defensive right fielder with a powerful throwing arm – he had 266 career outfield assists and led the league in that category 5 times.
In 1970 Clemente began the new decade much as he had left off in the 60s – he hit .352 with 10 triples, the ninth and final time in his career he eclipsed double figures in three baggers. The Pirates won the National League’s Eastern division but came up short against Cincinnati in the NLCS.
1971 was even better – Clemente batted .341 with 86 RBI and the Pirates won 97 games. They captured another NL East flag and overtook the Giants to win the NL pennant behind a .333 effort from Clemente in the NLCS. In the 1971 World Series, Pittsburgh fell behind 2 games to 0 to the defending World Champion Baltimore Orioles before storming back to take the series in 7 games. Clemente led all players in hits (12), extra base hits (5), and batting average (.414). He hit 2 home runs, including one in the Pirates 2-1 win in the decisive 7th game. He was an easy choice for Most Valuable Player.
In 1972, the 38 year old Clemente struggled through the season with an ankle injury and played in a career-low 102 games, though he still managed to hit .312. In his final regular season at-bat, he doubled off New York’s Jon Matlack for his 3,000th hit, becoming the first Hispanic player to reach that milestone, and only the 11th all-time.
A father of three boys, and a United States Marine Core reserve veteran, Clemente was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage and spent much of his time off the field involved in charitable causes. In the fall of 1972 Roberto was the leader of Puerto Rican efforts to aid victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. His organization had raised more than $150,000 in cash, food, and clothing, and had already made three deliveries to Nicaragua. Hearing rumors that not all the proceeds had reached the victims in the previous trips, Clemente insisted he make the next plane trip to personally see to it that the supplies got into the hands of those that needed them. On December 31, Clemente drove to San Juan International Airport with his wife Vera, his friend Cristobal Colon, and teammate Tom Walker, who helped him load the plane. Walker wanted to accompany Clemente on the plane trip, but Clemente convinced the single Walker to stay back and enjoy a New Year’s Eve party instead. Vera was worried that the plane seemed old and overloaded, but Roberto assured her he was fine as he said goodbye to her and his friends.
The DC-7 plane, carrying a crew of three, plus Clemente and the supplies, crashed minutes after take-off into seas a mile and a half from shore. The underwater wreckage was not found until two day later, and Clemente’s body was never recovered. He left behind Vera, three young sons – Roberto Jr., Luis, and Enrique, and a world of heartbroken fans.
“He did not just lend his name to the fund-raising activities the way some famous personalities do,” said Luis Vigoraux, a TV producer who had asked Clemente to take part in the collection. “He took over the entire thing, arranging for collection points, publicity, and the transportation to Nicaragua.”
In 1973, the standard five year waiting period was waived for only the second time in baseball history, and Roberto Clemente was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: