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Mrs. Vera C. Zabala The Legacy Of Una Gran Doña

Image Credit: The Clemente Family

The following article was written by a longtime friend and contributor of Latino Sports Danny Torres. “Mrs. Vera C. Zabala The Legacy Of Una Gran Doña” was published in the Hispanic Outlook on Education Magazine in March of 2020. Enjoy! 

Recently, I came across an out-of-print book, published 25 years ago, and quickly said to myself, “I have to pick up this book.”

“The Loss That is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother and Father” by Dr. Maxine Harris was written with the intention to help distraught families cope with the sudden loss of a parent and how this will affect a young child.

Vera and Roberto Clemente met and were married in 1964 – Image Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

As I reflect about what tragically happened to one of the greatest NBA players of all time, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven other close friends in Calabasas, California, I immediately thought about what occurred on New Year’s Eve 1972. No one can fathom what this insurmountable moment must have been like for a 31-year-old Puerto Rican mother with three children whose well-known husband perished that particular evening.

The Loss Of “The Great One”

Over the next 72 hours, countless island residents throughout Puerto Rico continued to respectfully congregate along Piñones Beach to gaze several kilometers off the coast towards a particular spot in the Atlantic Ocean.

Their eyes were fixated. Hands were firmly clasped together. Immediate family, close friends and total strangers stood side by side, including many hands extended towards the sky in a prayerful manner.

Mrs. Vera Clemente-Zabala, who epitomized an inner strength throughout those fateful days, continued to hope and certainly continued to pray.

Then, the unexpected news arrived as a complete shock: Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente died tragically in a plane crash while en route to Nicaragua on a humanitarian mission.

At the time, I was only 6 years old, and the only recollection I have was my late father telling my mother in Spanish, “Did you hear that Roberto Clemente died?” My mother immediately responded, “Oh my God.” Holding a newspaper in his hand, I watched as my grieving dad slowly walked to their bedroom, bowed his head and sadly began to cry.

Vera Clemente during 1973 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony – Image Credit: Bob Adelman and Susan Hall/National Baseball Hall of Fame

Like so many of us who were too young to truly understand the ramifications of Clemente’s death, it wasn’t until I embarked on my career as a freelance sports journalist and wrote numerous stories about this legendary ballplayer that I slowly began to fully comprehend the magnitude of his greatness.

The Loss Of “Una Gran Doña”

Although I’ve always remembered Mrs. Vera Zabala’s birthdate (March 6), another date will forever be etched in my mind – Saturday, November 16, 2019.

When I first heard the shocking news via text message on the sudden passing of the beloved wife of Roberto Clemente, I began to vividly recall when we first met in Puerto Rico. I remember her magnanimous personality, her beautiful smile and infectious laugh.

For years, I’ve even mimicked her delightful laugh to some of my closest friends – even to a Clemente-Zabala family member.

On a personal note, I was deeply saddened by her sudden passing because of how she impacted everyone who had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in her presence. Like her husband, she left us too early. She was only 78.

I truly believe countless fans were compelled to meet and become enamored with her personality because they yearned to hear something different – something special about her extraordinary husband.

And she never thought of herself – always for someone else – even a total stranger.

She wanted everyone to leave her knowing a little bit more about Roberto Clemente who was affectionately called, “The Great One” throughout his storied career in Pittsburgh.

Roberto Clemente and Vera C. Zabala – Image Credit: Roberto Clemente Foundation

But honestly, in my opinion, Doña Vera should forever be known as “Una Gran Doña,” which translates to “A Great Lady,” who undoubtedly transcended her official title of Goodwill Ambassador that was bestowed upon her 10 years ago by Major League Baseball.

The Goodwill Of Doña Vera Zabala-Clemente

Throughout the various municipalities and towns, Roberto Clemente would always organize youth baseball clinics throughout their homeland. Proudly wearing his Pirates uniform, he would partake in various demonstrations and explain the fundamentals of the sport he loved so much. His presence brought huge smiles to countless faces throughout the island.

Since 1964, his beloved wife, whom he met at a local pharmacy in Puerto Rico, would accompany her dedicated husband to these activities and observe how impactful these gatherings had become to the young and old.

That particular day, there was an ecstatic, 10-year-old boy from a southern coastal town, who vividly recalled meeting Clemente but also remembered seeing his beautiful wife smiling and laughing alongside their three sons.

It was a phenomenal moment he’ll never forget.

“There were about 300 kids. He was doing clinics all over, and I remember when he walked up to me and shook my hand. I felt like it was just me and him.” Unbeknownst to Clemente, who would become the first Latin-American ballplayer inducted posthumously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, he would be gently shaking the small hands of Edwin Rodríguez.

In 2010, this Ponce native (Ponceño) became the first Puerto Rican manager in Major League Baseball history.

Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez during exhibition game against the Twins in March of 2013 – Image Credit: AP/David Goldman

Sadly, 50 years later inside a multi-sports coliseum named after this phenomenal athlete, Rodríguez attended the memorial service in honor of this extraordinary woman, who for 47 years proudly carried the legacy of a revered ballplayer, but most importantly the father of their three sons.

Hospitalized for close to a month in Puerto Rico, Mrs. Zabala died peacefully, and the following day, the sorrowful news spread rapidly throughout Puerto Rico, in her adopted home of Pittsburgh and throughout Latin-America. I asked Rodríguez to share what was on his mind during the memorial service.

“Every time I spoke with her, it was such an absolute joy – a peaceful feeling,” recounted this former big leaguer and current San Diego Padres Triple-A manager in El Paso, Texas. However, Rodríguez recalled at an intimate party in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, with more than 25 former Puerto Rican ball players (including two Baseball Hall of Famers, Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Alomar), and Mrs. Zabala was seated alone.

“I walked by her, and she grabbed my hand and said, ‘Edwin, can you please sit with me?’ I was with her for about 25 minutes, and we were talking about everything but baseball. I’ll never forget that because she could have spoken with anyone else. But she chose me.”

Similarly to how Roberto Clemente gently grabbed the small hand of the future Puerto Rican manager, his kindhearted wife would replicate that moment. And her middle son, Luis Roberto, witnessed this moment from across the room and proudly shook his head in amazement.

Rodríguez added: “She was a star who illuminated around everyone. Her legacy was about love for people, her family and the island of Puerto Rico. She was always smiling and after meeting her, you walked away smiling too.”

Our First Meeting

Obviously, like so many of us who read the official press release from the Pittsburgh Pirates that she was “in delicate health” I knew that meant her illness was quite serious. Immediately, I didn’t want to think about her illness, but I began to think about when we met for the very first time.

It was December 2002, and my dear friend Paul Kutch who always described Mrs. Clemente as, “the most kindhearted person you’ll ever meet who would treat you as one of her own children” invited me to attend a museum opening in Puerto Rico dedicated to the phenomenal career of Roberto Clemente. It would be the first time Clemente’s personal collection of awards/artifacts would be on display in an exhibition.

Vera C. Zabala – Image Credit: Roberto Clemente Museum

And I would finally have the opportunity to meet Mrs. Clemente who since that unforgettable day on the island I’ve always respectfully called “Doña” Vera.

What made that unbelievable day so unforgettable was after our two-hour conversation in her office at Sports City (a multi-purpose sports complex her husband envisioned and where she worked tirelessly for four decades) was hearing her say three tantalizing words: “Are you hungry?” I quickly responded in a manner of someone who always has an insatiable appetite for all types of food.

Surprisingly, Mrs. Clemente would invite Paul and I to her beautiful home in Rio Piedras, and she would cook a traditional Puerto Rican meal (steak/with onions and pink beans with white rice).

From my own personal observations throughout the years, I always saw firsthand how important family was to this incredible woman. Along with her three sons, Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, Roberto Enrique, her grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and close friends, they provided tireless strength, endless support and continuous laughter throughout the years since the tragedy of her husband’s passing.

A Grandmother, An Ambassador And Titi Vera

Her oldest granddaughter, Christina Clemente, 32, (the daughter of Roberto Jr.) recalled hearing for the first time when she was five years old that her grandmother was married to a famous ballplayer. But, it was the narrative of their heartfelt courtship that holds a special place in her soul.

“I will never forget the first time when she told me how she met my grandfather. Her eyes were sparkling. The love in her eyes thinking about him is what touched me the most,” said Clemente who is a Certified Public Accountant in Puerto Rico.

Still in utter disbelief on the loss of her grandmother, she also mentioned how she enjoyed her grandma’s contagious laughter, humility, kindness and even “awesome rice and beans.” But, most importantly what she’ll always remember is the indelible mark she left in her life.

“Just recently, I remember her saying to me and she even said this to me when I was a kid about always going the extra mile in everything,” said Clemente. She concluded: “I don’t believe I will ever meet someone who was as kindhearted and selfless as her. She was always full of joy.”

Throughout her tenure as Major League Baseball’s Goodwill Ambassador, Mrs. Zabala-Clemente traveled throughout the United States to various ballparks, visited schools, hospitals and ever year was invited to interact with the fans at the annual All-Star weekend festivities.

Presenting the annual Roberto Clemente Award during the World Series was the highlight of her year because the deserving ballplayer, who received this prestigious award, represented the humanitarianism of her late husband. Not only did one of her sons accompany their mother on these official trips, but there was also a familiar family member by her side.

Ivelisse Zabala, 57, traveled often with her aunt and enjoyed a firsthand account to witness her beloved Titi (aunt) at these events. Doña Vera’s motherly, nurturing presence would forever impact her niece and the unforgettable stories were endless.

Ivelisse always felt Mrs. Zabala understood her role as Major League Baseball’s Goodwill Ambassador and worked extremely hard in that capacity. She even recalled a funny moment at Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game FanFest weekend and how a particular fan didn’t want to leave her.

“There was a little boy who grabbed my aunt’s hand and stared into her eyes. He was about five years old, and his parents couldn’t take him away. Everyone was laughing. Even this child, who knew nothing about baseball, was struck by her kindness,” Zabala speaking over the phone from her home in Puerto Rico.

She even reflected on one occasion her Titi wasn’t feeling well on a scheduled trip to a local hospital in the U.S.

“We were visiting terminally-ill children who were on life-support. Although she was ill, the children reenergized her, and when she stepped up to the podium, she spoke in English and began to speak a few words to the children in Spanish. They loved being around her.”

When asked her how much of an impact did her aunt have in her legendary uncle’s well-being, she paused for a brief moment.

“No one knows how much my aunt did for Roberto,” Zabala tearfully recalled how she was her husband’s confidant and biggest supporter.

“Before a game, Titi would give him a massage and made sure the house was quiet when he slept. She would say, ‘speak softly.’ When he was sleeping, I took the boys to the park. She was an excellent cook and prepared him a good steak with whatever he wanted.”

Their extraordinary love affair deeply touched Ivelisse’s heart because she remembers the “twinkle” in her aunt’s eyes every time she spoke about Roberto, and now, they are forever reunited once again.

“She always said when they stared at each other, they already knew what the other was thinking. They were identical souls, and when they were together, they became one.”

The late Puerto Rican sportswriter Elliott Castro once said, “That night on which Roberto Clemente left us physically, his immortality began.”

Those words above, articulated so profoundly, could similarly include Mrs. Vera C. Zabala – “Una Gran Doña” who should never be forgotten in Major League Baseball history.

We invite any of our readers to feel free to comment or contribute anything on Roberto Clemente that you would like to share.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Temp Mail

    December 24, 2023 at 4:43 am

    This was beautiful Admin. Thank you for your reflections.

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