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Rare interview set tone for Clemente legacy

21 Days of Clemente continues at Latino Sports as we remember and honor The Great One Roberto Clemente - Image Credit: Bettmann Archive

The following article was written by a longtime friend and contributor of Latino Sports Danny Torres. “Rare interview set tone for Clemente legacy” was published as a special to the Puerto Rican Daily Sun on December 31, 2009, as well as on several other outlets throughout past years. Enjoy! 

NEW YORK — Whether it was in his native Puerto Rico or in the blue collar city of Pittsburgh, Roberto Clemente was revered by countless fans who witnessed an extraordinary baseball player. Yet, 37 years after his untimely death on December 31, 1972, Clemente is remembered as much for his remarkable humanitarian work as he is for his spectacular catches and brilliant hitting.

It was on what has been described as a “mission of mercy,” Clemente’s ill-fated trip aboard a DC-7 plane, that the hall of famer demonstrated his dedication to humanity. Clemente was en route to Nicaragua transporting much-needed food, clothing and medical supplies to aid the suffering in Managua. A devastating earthquake hit the capital city with such force that it claimed countless lives, destroyed neighborhoods, and interrupted the food supply.

There were no media on board. No pictures taken. No fanfare. As 1973 began, many were completely stunned at the unexpected tragedy of Clemente’s passing. Many wondered, is this the same Clemente, the baseball player? I never knew he was that type of person. Didn’t he just get his 3,000th hit?

Wait a minute . . . he was doing what? Collecting food? Raising funds?

Hosting baseball clinics for children? Leaving on New Year’s Eve?

There was one person who, upon hearing the heartbreaking news, wasn’t completely shocked. On the contrary, what immediately stuck out was the memorable conversation he had had with Clemente three months prior.

Historic sit-down

Unquestionably, Sam Nover knew the real Roberto Clemente and became intertwined with his legacy when on October 8, 1972 he conducted what was Clemente’s first and only one-on-one, in-studio interview. That was 37 years ago.

Nover, who retired in 2001, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1970. As the sports director for WIIC-TV Channel 11, he planned his historic 30-minute sit-down with Clemente for close to a year.

“I was so overwhelmed at the responses,” said Nover. “The interview allowed people to see a side of him that they had never seen before. It was a conversation you wouldn’t normally hear him talk about, subjects he wouldn’t normally broach.”

Nover, who grew up in Detroit, was from an American League city. His idol was Al Kaline.

“Clemente was not the icon to me that he was for everyone else who had seen him play,” stated Nover. “Eventually I got to see him play every day and grew to appreciate his enormous ability and incredible dedication to the game.”

As a member of the working media, Nover was often inside of the Pirates clubhouse. Yet, as he recalls, Clemente was a puzzling character.

“Clemente didn’t invite you in. My first year I was afraid to go up to his locker,” recalled Nover. “I was intimidated because he wasn’t warm and inviting. But once I got to know him, the intimidation factor went away.”

Having the opportunity to grab an unforgettable interview in the twilight of Clemente’s career, Nover was able to ask engaging questions and Clemente was very forthright in sharing his personal thoughts.

He talked about people he idolized such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Luis Muñoz Marín.

No sale

Although Clemente was a prominent sports figure, as a proud, black Puerto Rican he was also fully aware of his nationality. Nover recalls one particular incident in a furniture showroom in New York City. Clemente and his wife Vera were shopping and walked into the store.

“We would like to see the furniture downstairs in your showroom,” Clemente asked.

The salesman responded, “You don’t have enough money.”

“I would like to see it because I have a right to see it as a human being, as a person that may buy from you,” Clemente demanded.

Nover said that Clemente remembered he had $5,000 in his wallet. He showed the salesman the money.

“Do you think this is enough to buy it?”

“Once the salesman found out it was Clemente, he stated that they had seven floors of furniture and told Clemente that he thought he was a poor Puerto Rican,” recalled Nover.

This particular incident angered Clemente and he responded emphatically.

“I don’t care if I am Puerto Rican or Jewish,” said Clemente. “You see, this is what really gets me mad: because I am Puerto Rican, you treat me differently from other people. I have the same American money that you are asking for. I don’t want to buy your furniture.”

He walked out.

Lasting legacy

Although the original TV studio in Pittsburgh where Nover held court with Clemente no longer exists, I asked Nover if he thought Clemente, then 38 years old, would have continued playing baseball.

“I honestly believe if Clemente didn’t perish in that plane, he would have played a few more years,” said Nover. “I also believe he would have made sure that Sports City exceeded his expectations. He would have run for political office. He would have been the Puerto Rican equivalent to someone like Kennedy.”

And the most memorable moment that Clemente shared with you?

“The most prophetic thing that Clemente said to me, and I will never forget it, was wanting to live long enough to watch his three sons grow up and become mature, respectful people and that in return they would also be respected,” said Nover. “And then he dies three months later. To this day, it gives me goosebumps.”

The legacy of Roberto Clemente Walker, 37 years after his death, continues to transfigure people throughout the world, bestowing a message of racial harmony, unselfishness and dignity.

In the unfathomable depths off Puerto Rico, a man died attempting to help others. He left behind the power of his example. And for this, every Puerto Rican should pause, reflect, and never forget the memory of “The Great One,” Roberto Clemente Walker. For he represents the best of who we are.

Descanse en paz, Roberto.

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