From The Press Box
by: Amaury Pi-González
This December 31, 2021, marks the 49th anniversary of the great Roberto Clemente plane crash on board a mercy mission flight he chartered to Nicaragua.
Roberto Clemente was the 11th player, among a total of 32 (to date) in major league baseball history to reach the magic 3,000 hit plateau. His 3,000 hit on September 31, 1972, was his last. Not by design but by fate. Just three months after that 3,000 hit (a double to left field at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh against New York Mets lefty Jon Matlack, who was the NL Rookie of the Year that same season ) Roberto Clemente died, when the plane he chartered with friends on a mercy mission crashed soon after take-off from Puerto Rico. The plane was loaded with aid to the people of Managua, Nicaragua, which suffered a terrible earthquake of 6.3 magnitudes that killed and injured dozens of thousands, just a week earlier to Clemente’s plane crash.
Roberto’s best friend in baseball was his teammate with the Pittsburgh Pirates and catcher Manny Sanguíllen, who told me during an exclusive telephone interview (published in Sports Radio Service last year) he could have easily joined Roberto on that fateful flight, but for reasons he could not control, never did.
During his rookie season (1955) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto wore No.13, but when center fielder Earl Smith parted ways with the Pirates, Clemente took No.21 which was used by Smith. Today that number 21 is one of the most famous numbers ever used by a player during a stellar Hall of Fame career. Just like all players (especially black players) love to wear No.47 during Jackie Robinson Day, over 30% of Hispanic players in MLB are very proud to wear #21 on Roberto Clemente Day.
Although he played for 18 years, was selected to 15 All-Star Games, won 4 Batting Titles, 12 Gold Glove Awards, won the National League MVP Award, and the World Series Award, the Press never gave him the credit he deserved. Had 3,000 hits at the time of his death and a .317 combined batting average, but he was black and Puerto Rican so the racist media had “two strikes” on him, since his debut in the Major Leagues. Some in the media called him Bobby, but he hated that, he always said “my name is Roberto and that is how I want to be called”; he was a very proud man. During his last season in1972 (in a visit to San Francisco to play the Giants at Candlestick Park) I witnessed a Pittsburgh writer shout in the press box after Clemente struck out, the following: “send him back in a banana boat!” Imagine all the verbal abuse this man had to withstand, to play baseball, one if not, the most difficult game. Baseball is one (if not the most) difficult team sport to master.
Most baseball fans love to see a guy hit a ball 450 feet over the fence. I am proud to say that I saw Roberto Clemente play, and hit and drive in runs, and play defense like nobody else. His instinct was acute and seldom did he have to dive for a ball in the outfield, he knew how to play the outfield. His arm and accuracy on his throws were legendary. Many superstars of that era like Willie Mays, Stan Musial (just to mention a couple) have statues erected in the cities/ballparks where they played, but Roberto Clemente is in a class by himself, he has a Statue at PNC Park in Pittsburgh and a bridge named after him, The Roberto Clemente Bridge, also known as the Sixth Street Bridge, over the Allegheny River in the Steel City, as well as Statues in the South Bronx, New York, a city with the largest population of Puerto Ricans, as well as a Statue at the entrance of Ciudad Deportiva Stadium in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the city where he was born.
We at the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum are very proud to have Roberto Clemente among our greats enshrined forever, he was a great man. Among our numerous exhibits and displays for over two decades, Roberto is still the most popular Latino player and fans are always inquisitive about Roberto Clemente’s history and especially the way he left us, helping people that he didn’t know in a country that was not his own. I like to end with a baseball quote as we remember the Cometa de Puerto Rico.
There are many, many quotes about Roberto Clemente, but my favorite is by a gentleman, in my humble opinion, the best play by play baseball broadcaster who ever lived, who said: “Roberto Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.” -Vin Scully Brooklyn Dodgers and Los Angeles Dodgers Play by Play.