When Topps released the first series of its 1972 set, there was no one cooler than Roberto Clemente. First, he was coming off heroic efforts in the 1971 World Series, when it seemed that he single-handedly carried the Pirates to one of the largest upsets in October history. Second, he had a distinctive air about him, lean and muscular, handsome and popular, steely and determined.
Clemente’s 1972 card reflects his hip attitude. Looking relaxed before a 1971 road game (I‘m guessing Shea Stadium), Clemente is seen casually flipping a ball into mid-air. When I first saw this card, I did not even notice the baseball. I just assumed that Clemente was gesturing with his right hand. But the ball is definitely there; it has been caught at its apex, as it is superimposed against the gray color of the Pirates’ uniforms, just above the name “Pirates.” We can only assume that Clemente, in fulfilling his coolness, catches the ball as it drops toward his palm.
I’ve always wondered whether the photographer actually asked Clemente to flip the ball in the air. Given his often cold relationships with the American media, I have a hard time imagining Clemente fulfilling such a request. Perhaps he just decided to do something unusual at the time of the photograph. Or maybe this was a candid shot, with Clemente unaware that the Topps cameraman was snapping him at that moment. After all, Clemente is not looking at the camera, but is intently staring at the ball.
By now, the biographical story of Clemente is well known. Raised as part of a relatively poor family on the island of Puerto Rico, Clemente was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. When the Dodgers failed to promote him to the major leagues after giving him a sizable bonus, they lost him in an early incarnation of the Rule 5 draft. The Pirates took him with the first pick, watched him struggle over his first five seasons in Pittsburgh, and then began to see benefits during the world championship season of 1960.
By the middle of the ’60s, Clemente had translated his five-tool talents into superstardom. He could hit for average and power, run fast (though he did not steal many bases), and field his position in right field with unprecedented brilliance. He put together arguably his two finest seasons in 1966 and ‘67. In 1966, he took home National League MVP honors; in 1967, he won the batting title and forged an OPS of .954.
Yet, the best story of Clemente’s career would take place during the watershed season of 1971. Though he was now 36 and starting to miss chunks of the season with injuries, he remained an important player, helping the Pirates to the Eastern Division title. In the National League Championship Series against the Giants, he batted .333 as the Pirates rebounded from a Game One loss to win the next three games.
Clemente continued to play well in the first two games of the World Series, but the Pirates looked over-matched against the powerhouse Orioles, who took the two games with ease. Predictions of a four-game sweep by Baltimore seemed well on their way to fruition.
Facing a must-win situation in Game Three, Clemente played a subtle role in a Pirates turnaround. With the Pirate leading 2-1, Clemente led off the seventh inning with a check-swing tapper back to the mound. Instead of conceding the out, Clemente ran hard from the outset. As Mike Cuellar fielded the ball slightly off balance in front of the mound, he noticed Clemente’s unhesitant sprint toward first base and hurried his throw to Boog Powell. Cuellar’s hasty reaction resulted in an errant throw, which pulled Powell off the bag. Clemente was safe. A routine play had turned into an error against Cuellar—and had given the Pirates hope of building a rally.
Perhaps rattled by his mistake, Cuellar walked Willie Stargell, putting runners at first and second with no one out. Bob Robertson then followed with a mammoth three-run homer, putting the game away for the Pirates.
Milt May’s pinch-hit single gave the Pirates a victory in Game Four, and Nelson Briles’ pitching masterpiece delivered a win in Game Five. In the sixth game, Clemente hit an opposite field home run to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead, but the Orioles rallied to tie the game. In the bottom of the ninth, with Mark Belanger on first and two men out, Don Buford lined a double down the right field line. As Belanger rounded third, Clemente made a 309-foot throw from the right field corner to Manny Sanguillen—on one short hop. Wisely, Belanger returned to third. Although no Oriole was retired on the play, the throw was still an incredible one.
The Orioles would go on to win the game in extra innings, but Clemente’s performance—highlighted by a home run, a triple, and an awe-inspiring throw—left major impressions on those who watched Game Six.
In Game Seven, Cuellar set down the first 11 Pirates batters he faced. With two outs in the top of the fourth, Cuellar now faced Clemente. Hoping to throw Clemente off balance, Cuellar threw him a curveball over the outside part of the plate. Although he kept the ball away from Clemente, he allowed the pitch to hang high. Clemente unleashed a powerful swing and cracked the ball into left-center field. The ball sailed into the empty Memorial Stadium bleachers, just to the right of the 390-foot sign.
It was ironic that Clemente and Cuellar had crossed paths in Game Seven. Just one year earlier, Clemente had managed Cuellar in winter league ball. After a brief stint, Cuellar decided to bolt the team, unhappy with Clemente’s disciplinary style. Clemente had been disappointed with Cuellar for reporting out of shape.
Clemente’s home run helped the Pirates to a 2-1 win and a stunning world championship upset of Baltimore. The home run capped off an indelible Series for Clemente, who finished with two home runs, a .414 batting average, and several remarkable plays in right field.
After that performance on the nationally televised stage, Clemente collected a long list of trophies and awards, including Sport magazine’s award as the most outstanding player in the World Series. Clemente also received appreciation for his regular season performance, including his 11th career Gold Glove.
By the time Clemente reported for spring training in 1972, the offseason demands of World Series celebrity had left him ailing. “I had a rough winter,” Clemente told The New York Times. “For a month and a half, my wife and I couldn’t sleep. Our house was like a museum—people flocking down the street, ringing our bell day and night, walking through our room.”
Clemente was also bothered by family concerns, specifically the illness of his 92-year-old father. And Clemente had health problems of his own. As the result of ongoing stomach trouble, he lost 10 pounds over the winter and reported for spring training weighing only 176 pounds, his lightest weight in years.
With his body breaking down, Clemente would play in a career-low 102 games in 1972. He suffered tendinitis in his ankles, a rheumatic heel, and repeated bouts with a viral infection. In spite of the ailments, he batted .312 and remained an effective all-around player, helping the Pirates clinch their third consecutive Eastern Division title.
The 1972 season marked a few milestones for the legendary right fielder. On Sept. 2, Clemente surpassed Pirates legend Honus Wagner to become the franchise’s all-time hit leader with 2,971. He also continued his race toward the 3,000-hit circle. Fans and media wondered whether Clemente would reach the milestone that season, given the time that he had missed due to the viral infection.
On Saturday, Sept. 30, with just a few days remaining in the regular season, the Pirates hosted the Mets at Three Rivers Stadium. Clemente’s hit total stood at 2,999. Although the Pirates had already clinched the division, manager Bill Virdon put Clemente in the lineup, hoping he could reach the milestone that afternoon.
Awaiting Clemente was a match-up against Mets left-hander Jon Matlack. In the first inning, Clemente struck out. In his second at-bat, he led off the bottom of the fourth. On an 0-and-1 pitch, Clemente smacked a sound double into left-center field. Second base umpire Doug Harvey retrieved the ball from shortstop Jim Fregosi and gave it to Clemente, who had become only the 11th major leaguer to reach the milestone. Clemente stood atop second base and acknowledged the cheers of the 13,117 fans, a sparse crowd for the occasion, at Three Rivers.
Three days after collecting his 3,000th hit, Clemente reached another significant milestone when he played in his 2,433rd game, surpassing Wagner for the most games played in Pirate history. Clemente might not have played in that game at all if not for the attentiveness of public relations director Bill Guilfoile, who reminded manager Bill Virdon of the importance of breaking Wagner’s franchise record at the end of the season rather than having to wait until 1973.
From a team standpoint, the Pirates prepared to face the Reds in the National League Championship Series. The two talented teams split the first four games. On Oct. 11 at Riverfront Stadium, the Pirates and Reds met in the deciding game.
No one realized it at the time, but Clemente would take the field for the final time in his career. In the bottom of the ninth, he watched helplessly as reliever Bob Moose bounced a wild pitch past Manny Sanguillen, allowing George Foster to score the game-winning run. Foster’s run capped off a two-run rally, ending the season for the Pirates—and Clemente.
Clemente, who had gone 1-for-3 and had played no special role in the decisive fifth game, would never make it to spring training in 1973.
Continuing back problems and the realities of a 38-year-old body discouraged him from engaging in his usually demanding winter league schedule. Instead, Clemente spent his time conducting free clinics, where he taught youngsters the fundamentals of the game. He also managed a team of Puerto Rican all-stars during a tour of Nicaragua.
After the all-star team finished its series of games in Nicaragua, Clemente returned to his home in Carolina, Puerto Rico. In late December, he heard the news of a devastating earthquake that hit the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. The earthquake, striking two days before Christmas, resulted in the deaths of approximately 7,000 people, while injuring several thousand others. The earthquake brought to his mind Clemente’s recent visit to Nicaragua.
At the suggestion of one of his friends, Clemente decided to become the honorary leader of a special committee to collect relief supplies. Such humanitarian efforts were typical of Clemente, who often visited patients at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital and conducted those free baseball clinics for underprivileged children.
Clemente and his committee members worked throughout the Christmas holiday and then some. He put in 14-hour days, often passing up his regular meals to continue working. He even visited houses in the wealthier sections of San Juan—literally going door to door—asking homeowners to donate. Led by Clemente, the committee raised over $150,000. The relief team also collected 26 tons of food, clothing and other supplies, and stored them temporarily at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Clemente then made arrangements to obtain a plane from a company in Miami.
With Clemente doing much of the legwork, the committee engineered several successful flights and boating shipments to Nicaragua. Clemente then received a desperate request from Managua for additional loads of sugar and medical supplies. Clemente agreed to lease another plane, an aging, propeller-driven DC-7, for $4,000. When he heard reports that goods targeted for the people of Managua had been intercepted by the Nicaraguan militia and then sold at profit, he became outraged. He vowed to personally accompany the next delivery of supplies to Managua.
Clemente and four other men boarded the plane on New Year’s Eve. The group included Arturo Rivera, the president of the company that owned the plane; pilot Jerry Hill; engineer Francisco Matias; and a man named Rafael Lozano, an associate of Clemente.
Several people, including Clemente’s wife, Vera, and teammate Jose Pagan, warned Roberto that the old plane was dangerously overloaded. The cargo was also unevenly distributed, creating a dangerous imbalance once the plane left the ground. In spite of the concerns, Rivera claimed the aircraft was safe and declared that he would co-pilot the flight to Managua himself. Reassured by Rivera, Clemente insisted on boarding the plane.
While some critics have blamed Clemente for boarding an unsafe flight, they have overlooked the real possibility that he did not know of Rivera’s history of unsafe flying. In 1970, the Federal Aviation Administration had attempted to revoke Rivera’s pilot’s license, citing 66 unsafe and improperly licensed flights. In January of 1971, the National Transportation Safety Board supported the charges of the FAA, but reduced the punishment to a 180-day suspension when Rivera argued that permanent revocation of his license would affect his livelihood. As a result, Rivera regained his license in July, only five months prior to the flight on New Year’s Eve.
At 9:20 that night, the small DC-7 took off from San Juan International Airport. As it did, an airport employee heard one of the plane’s four engines vibrate “excessively.” Shortly after takeoff, pilot Hill sensed trouble with one of the engines and tried to make a hasty return to the airport. He attempted an abrupt left-hand turn, which put additional strain on the aircraft. Watching from the ground, an eyewitness heard an explosion as the plane approached the water’s edge. Several explosions followed, including a final one as the plane plunged nose-first into the Atlantic Ocean, a mile and a half from the shore. Within five minutes, the plane completely submerged in the cold water.
Initial media reports said only that Clemente and the other passengers were “missing,” but within hours, reality began to set in. Two and a half hours before the start of the New Year, the five men aboard the flight, including Roberto Clemente, were gone.
In the days to come, authorities would find only one body—that of pilot Hill—which had floated to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Clemente’s remains were never found.
Once word of Clemente’s tragic passing spread, tributes poured in from all levels of the game. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn spoke reverently about the game’s lost hero. “He had about him the touch of royalty,” Kuhn said. It remains the most memorable quotation ever made about Clemente.
It is hard to believe that nearly 40 years have passed since Clemente died. His death changed baseball in Pittsburgh, in Puerto Rico, throughout Latin America, and anywhere else his name was known. When Clemente left us, so did a significant portion of baseball’s coolness.