If you are a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and were watching them play in the 1960s and 1970s then you may not realize that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Buccos’ superstar and Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Clemente.
When I think about 50 years since that fateful day I’m in disbelief it’s been that long. It also makes me feel much older than my 63 years of life. For those that remember that New Year’s Eve 1972, you probably remember the exact moment you learned that Clemente lost his life in a plane crash. I remember exactly where I was and who told me the sad news.
I was just waking up for the day and a family member said to me, “did you hear about Roberto Clemente?” I said no. Then the terrible words came out. “He was killed in a plane crash last night.” My heart sank. My boyhood hero was gone. The entire city of Pittsburgh went into mourning. You see, of all the athletes that played for a team in the Steel City, it was Roberto Clemente that has been the most loved of all. Perhaps only Willie Stargell could rival #21 but to this day, he is still idolized in the ‘Burgh.
The silver lining in the dark cloud of this event is that Clemente was nearing the end of his illustrious career and had achieved much. He reached the exclusive 3,000-hit club, hitting that mark right on the number and never going over it. But an even greater accomplishment is probably the fact that Roberto Clemente is considered by most experts to be the greatest defensive right fielder in the history of baseball and maybe the best with the glove and throwing arm of any outfielder.
One marvels over the throws made by Roberto from right field, most of the time hitting home plate on the fly or one simple bounce. It was said he used to go to old Forbes Field on off days and practice throwing to the plate with his back turned and taking a deflection off the outfield wall but making the throw without looking so that in a real game he would be better at throwing players out trying to score and there would be no hesitation.
Another trick Clemente pulled with his strong arm what throwing behind runners at first base when they turned the corner on a single often catching them off the bag and throwing them out. His arm was incredibly strong. But there was also the mystique behind the man, often misjudged because of his quiet nature and unwillingness to speak to the press openly. His Puerto Rican accent also made him uncomfortable but thanks in part to the legendary Pittsburgh announcer Bob Prince who became a close friend of Roberto’s, Prince helped Clemente in becoming more comfortable. Prince was another legend who I reserve to talk about in another article.
If you know who Neil Walker is, then maybe you don’t know the back story about his father Tom. Tom Walker played Major League Baseball and in 1972 was playing winter ball in Clemente’s hometown of Puerto Rico. When Roberto Clemente decided to charter a plane to Nicaragua to help victims of an earthquake, Tom Walker told Roberto he wanted to join him on the trip. But with the plane fully loaded and Clemente not wanting Walker to be with his family on New Year’s Eve, he convinced Neil’s father to stay behind. The rest is history.
Had Tom Walker gotten on that plane, there would be no Neil Walker who would end up playing part of his career in Pittsburgh and becoming a highly popular player. Both father and son are alive and well today, Tom Walker is now 74. Neil Retired last year after a career with six teams (Pirates, Mets, Brewers, Yankees, Marlins, Phillies).
Had Roberto Clemente not boarded that play on December 31, 1972, he probably would have played a few more seasons with the Pirates and undoubtedly still made the Hall of Fame based on his career and not just his career and passing. But with 18 years on his record, Clemente finished with those 3,000 hits, a batting average of an impressive .317, 240 home runs when he was not known as a long ball hitter, 166 triples, 440 doubles, 1,416 runs scored, 1,305 RBIs, 83 stolen bases, and a Most Valuable Player Award in 1966.
Clemente led the league in hits twice, triples once, and won the batting title four times. He did not get injured often and averaged 135 games a season for a career total of 2,433 games played. In the outfield, there was none other than Clemente. Smooth as silk, a cannon for an arm, accurate beyond belief, the man won the Gold Glove Award 12 times in 18 seasons those 12 awards all coming in succession beginning in 1961 to the day he played his last game.
On a personal level, Roberto Clemente married Vera Zabala in 1964, and had he survived until she died in 2019, they would have been married for 55 years. Vera was nearly as loved in Pittsburgh as was her husband and she has been honored at Pirates games where I’m sure there weren’t many dry eyes at Three Rivers Stadium or PNC Park that day.
The couple had three boys, Roberto Clemente Jr., Roberto Enrique, and Luis Roberto. In 2003, Vera Clemente accepted the President Medal of Freedom in Roberto’s name, honored of course posthumously. Roberto Jr. Tried to follow in his father’s footsteps into MLB but injuries ended that dream and he would end up with a broadcasting career among other ventures. Now 57 years of age he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child in 2018, a boy and to no surprise, named Roberto Clemente III.
Roberto’s youngest son, Roberto Enrique also attaches his mother’s maiden name to his so his full name is Roberto Enrique Clemente Zabala. Born on May 20, 1969, he too played baseball but only to the age of 13. Even shyer than his father, Enrique wanted a quiet private life thus he didn’t feel baseball would provide that to him so he stopped playing. Instead, he focused on being the best man, husband, and father he could be. His career has been working for manufacturing and labor companies and he remains committed to staying out of the spotlight.
The boy in the middle of Roberto Clemente’s three sons is Luis Roberto who is now 56 years old. He established the “Clemente Legacy Program” which attempts to teach students to become goodwill ambassadors in their respective communities. It is made up of facilities honored with the name of Roberto Clemente, schools, and other programs.
Luis Clemente is also a motivational speaker. Luis and his wife have continued the Clemente legacy with three sons of his own, Luis Jr., Robby, and Bobby. The live in Puerto Rico. As for Roberto’s immediate family, his parents were Melchor Clemente and Luisa Walker who represents Roberto’s middle name. Roberto had six other brothers and sisters.
Roberto Clemente got his baseball start in Puerto Rico playing in leagues there before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1954. But he was a free agent unprotected with his contract and as the rest is history he signed with the Pirates never to play for another team. Pittsburgh is thankful for that.
So when December 31 rolls around this year, Pirates fans everywhere will be saddened on that day to know it marks 50 years since baseball lost a superstar and a Pittsburgh icon. In Major League Baseball an effort remains intact to have Clemente’s jersey number of 21 retired from all of baseball but in Pittsburgh, no other Pirate will ever wear that number again.