40th anniversary: R.I.P. Roberto Clemente

Forty years ago today was the saddest New Year’s Eve in Major League Baseball history. On Dec. 31, 1972, longtime Pirates star Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash.

Clemente had just finished a season in which he’d hit .312 in a full-time role, not bad for a man who turned 38 years old in August. It was his 14th straight season batting over .290. Rather famously, Clemente joined the 3,000-hit club with his last hit in the 1972 season. (His career didn’t end there, though, as the Pirates won the division and lost the NLCS in heartbreaking fashion to the Reds in a full five games.)

It wasn’t just any plane crash that Clemente died in, either. Making the tragedy even sadder, the plane was on a humanitarian mission. Eight days earlier, Managua, Nicaragua had suffered a massive earthquake that killed several thousand people.

Though not a native of the country (Clemente was from the island of Puerto Rico), Clemente felt a strong desire to help. After all, he’d visited Managua shortly after the 1972 NLCS. Clemente arranged a series of emergency relief flights to help the people.

He hadn’t been on any of those flights, though. Under normal circumstances there would be no need for Clemente to be on this flight, either. But the circumstances were far from normal. In fact, they were rather nasty, making the circumstances of Clemente’s death even worse.

You see, though Clemente had arranged for three flights to go to Nicaragua, to date none of the supplies had reached the victims. Oh, the flights took off all right, they all landed in Nicaragua with no problem, and they were loaded with supplies to help people. But those supplies never go to those in need. Instead, officials in the Somoza regime gobbled them up for their own benefit, hording or selling them at exhorbitant prices. They literally were profiting from the death and misery of the masses. (On a side note, the blatant corruption helped fuel an ongoing rebellion, which forced the regime from power by the end of the decade).

Clemente didn’t sent the planes for the government to steals, so that’s why he went on the fourth flight—to make sure the supplies reached those in need. Maybe the officials wouldn’t dare rip off the victims with a prominent celebrity athlete in their midst.

The plane Clemente chartered had some mechanical problems and was overloaded by two tons. Immediately after takeoff from Clemente’s home island of Puerto Rico, it crashed. Clemente died, and his body was never found.

It was a sad day 40 years ago today.

Aside from that, many other events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.


4,000 days since Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Randy Winn is randomly selected from the crowd at a Clippers basketball game and sinks a half-court shot to win a free Mitsubishi Lancer. (He gives it to his mother.)

4,000 days since the Padres sign free agent Ron Gant.

6,000 days since Joey Hamilton has the worst ever Game Score for a starting pitcher with double-digit strikeouts. He fans 10 in five innings while allowing 12 hits, four walks, and seven runs (all earned) for a 21 Game Score.

7,000 days since Reds owner Marge Schott returns to running day-to-day activities of the Reds after serving a nine-month suspension.

8,000 days since the Twins sign free agent pitcher Jack Morris, ending his tenure with the Tigers.

9,000 days since the Cubs beat the Padres, 1-0, on a walk-off sacrifice bunt by Vance Law. It’s one of only two games since 1950 that end on a walk-off sacrifice bunt that results in the game’s only score.

10,000 days since Ozzie Smith receives a walk-off walk in the bottom of the 12th inning from Larry McWilliams of the Pirates for a 4-3 Cardinals win.

40,000 days since Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty appears to have delirium tremens due to booze. He hallucinates and at one point pulls out a large knife and threatens to kill himself.


1857 King Kelly, star outfielder and Hall of Famer, is born.

1870 Hall of Fame umpire Tom Connolly is born in England.

1897 Charles Ebbetts gains 80 percent controlling interest in the Dodgers franchise.

1900 Syl Johnson, 1920s-30s swingman pitcher in the NL, is born.

1914 Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tilinghast L’Hommendieu purchase the Yankees for $460,000.

1915 Tip O’Neill, star batting in the 1880s, dies at age 57.

1916 The White Sox release one-time star pitcher Ed Walsh.

1918 The White Sox name Kid Gleason to be their manager. He’ll guide them to a pennant in his first season, but then they’ll throw the World Series.

1919 Tommy Byrne, pitcher, is born. He still owns the Yankees single-season record for most walks issued in one season: 179 in 1949.

1920 The Yankees trade pitcher George Mogridge and hitter Duffy Lewis to Washington for outfielder Braggo Roth. The trade works out well for the Senators. Both Lewis and Roth are done as players, but Mogridge will have four straight solid seasons as a starting pitcher with Washington.

1925 The Browns select Charlie Robertson off waivers from the White Sox. Robertson once pitched a perfect game for Chicago.

1940 The Giants purchase Bump Hadley from the Yankees.

1955 Clint Brown, 1930s swingman pitcher, dies at age 52.

1958 Dirty Jack Doyle, 1890s baseball player, dies at age 89.

1961 Rick Aguilera, Mets pitcher, is born.

1964 Bobby Byrne, 1910s NL infielder, dies at age 80.

1966 It’s the end of an era as the Braves trade longtime star Eddie Mathews. In a five-player deal, Mathews goes to the Astros. Sandy Alomar will come to Atlanta as a player to be named later in this deal.

1971 Esteban Loaiza, 21-game winner in 2003, is born.

1973 AL president Joe Cronin finds that Dick Williams is still legally bound to Oakland and thus can’t manage the Yankees in 1974.

1974 The Yankees sign free agent pitcher Catfish Hunter to a five-year deal worth $3.75 million. Hunter became a free agent when A’s owner Charles O. Finley violated the terms of Hunter’s contract.

1980 Bob Shawkey, four-time 20-game winner for the New York Yankees, dies at age 90.

1990 The Yankees purchase Scott Sanderson from the A’s.

1993 The CBA between the league and the union expires with no new agreement in sight. The 1994 strike looms.

2002 The Dodgers sign free agent first baseman Fred McGriff.

2008 The Cubs trade versatile batter Mark DeRosa to the Indians.

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  1. Steve Zielinski said...

    The Clemente legend endures because of the largeness of the man. His baseball accomplishments are only footnotes.

  2. Andy said...

    As a child, my uncle took me to see Clemente play in Pittsburgh, and the thing that sticks with me is how much he was loved by the people of Western Pennsylvania.

  3. Steve Zielinski said...

    Clemente was loved and admired by the younger generation who grew to adults watching him play. Many of the adults at the time were not among the vanguard of those seeking racial harmony. Clemente’s charisma likely saved many from inheriting the sins of their parents. Today many yinzers would make Clemente a saint.

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