It was 40 years ago this New Year’s morning that sports fans woke up to the shocking news that one of baseball’s greatest stars had lost his life trying to bring relief to others.
Roberto Clemente was not only a national hero in Puerto Rico, but after 18 years and two World Series Championships had become a favorite among sports fans in Pittsburgh.
On September 30, 1972, the 38-year-old Clemente became just the 10th player in Major League Baseball history to reach the prestigious 3,000 hit mark. He then hit .235 as the Pirates lost the National League Championship Series in five games to the Cincinnati Reds.
No one could have imagined that less than three months later this baseball legend would be lost in a tragic accident.
The events that led to Clemente’s death started on December 23rd when a massive earthquake hit Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Clemente had been in the country just three weeks earlier conducting baseball camps and was determined to lend a hand. He organized three flights of aid packages, but soon learned that all three planes had been diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government and had not reached the victims.
He then coordinated a fourth flight and was going to accompany that flight to ensure that it reached those impacted by the earthquake. Unfortunately, the plane that he chartered for the New Year’s Eve flight was a Douglas DC-7 that had a history of mechanical problems.
Determined to take as many supplies as possible, the plane was overloaded by more than 4,000 pounds. Some who were on the scene have also said that there was a noticeable oil leak coming from the plane, but instead of postponing for another day, Clemente felt the urgency to get these supplies to the earthquake victims and refused to delay the flight.
The plane barely made it off the ground as it crashed shortly after takeoff near the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Very little wreckage from the plane was recovered and Clemente’s body was never found.
Clemente’s death was a shock in his native Puerto Rico as well as across the United States and Major League Baseball. Within months of his death, Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election that waived the traditional five-year waiting period. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Citizens Medal. The Roberto Clemente Award is presented annually by Major League Baseball to a player who exemplifies Clemente’s dedication to humanitarian service.
Because of the tragedy of his death and the passage of time, it is often easy to forget just how great of a player Clemente was during his 18 years with the Pirates.
Though he was occasionally overshadowed by the other great outfielders of his era who hit for more power, including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle, Clemente was an all-around star that consistently was among the most productive hitters and best fielders in the game.
The owner of a cannon arm that could easily gun down baserunners from right field, Clemente was awarded a National League Gold Glove for 12 straight years from 1961 through 1972.
A 12-time All-Star, Clemente hit better than .300 13 times during his career and won the NL batting title four times.
In 1966 he was named the NL MVP after hitting .317 with career-highs of 29 home runs and 119 RBI. Ironically, that was the only season during a four year stretch from 1964-67 that Clemente didn’t win the batting title.
After hitting only 26 total home runs during his first five seasons with the Pirates, Clemente had a break-out season in 1960 to help lead the perennial second division Pirates to the World Series. He blasted what was then a career-high 16 home runs and drove in 94 runs while hitting .314 to finish 8th in the MVP balloting and earn his first All-Star appearance.
During the 1960 World Series, Clemente hit .310 with nine hits and three RBI as the Pirates shocked the baseball world by defeating the New York Yankees in a dramatic seven-game series.
It would be more than a decade until Clemente and the Pirates would return to the Fall Classic, this time taking on the defending champion Baltimore Orioles. Clemente earned MVP honors during the 1971 World Series as he hit .414 with two home runs and four RBI as the Pirates again won the series in seven games.
Injuries limited Clemente to only 102 games in 1972, but he did hit .312 with 10 home runs and 60 RBI while reaching the prestigious 3,000 hit mark during what would turn out to be the final regular season at bat of his career.
Overall for his career, Clemente hit .317 with 240 home runs, 1,305 RBI and 1,416 runs scored. He will forever be remembered as one of the great legends in Pittsburgh Pirate and Major League Baseball history.
(check out this great Outside the Lines story about the mystery behind the bat used by Clemente for his 3,000th hit.)