The following was published on Society for American Baseball Research by Justin Krueger – The Response to Roberto Clemente’s Death.
The death of Roberto Clemente on December 31, 1972, caused shock waves across the globe. He was just a few months removed from being the 11th player, and the first Latin American, to record 3,000 hits in the major leagues. The 38-year-old right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates was on a humanitarian mission taking aid to the people of Nicaragua, who had recently been devastated by an earthquake.
Clemente’s sudden death felt incomprehensible. It was a jolt.
As a public figure, Clemente was larger than life. He was both man and myth and respected as each. The immediate aftermath of Clemente’s death saw an outpouring of responses. Words of condolence, political statements, and civilian acts of remembrance were ubiquitous and continued long after the memorial services that were held in Clemente’s hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico, and in Pittsburgh.1
RESPONSE FROM POLITICAL LEADERS
The death of Clemente was both widely and quickly reported. Responses from politicians followed in kind.
Outgoing Puerto Rican Governor Luis A. Ferré issued a proclamation for three days of official national mourning for “the death of the great Puerto Rican, Roberto Clemente.”2 It was one of Ferré’s last official acts as governor.
The newly elected governor, Rafael Hernández Colón, who was sworn in on January 2, 1973, canceled all inauguration-related social activities but the state banquet.3 His inauguration, which would have typically enjoyed widespread celebration, was muted.
At the beginning of Hernández Colón’s inauguration ceremony, Puerto Rico’s secretary of state, Fernando Chardón, said: “We have with us today the spirit of a man, Roberto Clemente, who helped teach independentistas, statehooders and commonwealthers how to play good baseball and become better citizens.”4 He concluded by calling for a moment of silence from the crowd.
Hernández Colón, at the end of his address, acknowledged:
“In my greeting there is also my sympathy with Puerto Rico’s bereavement today on the death of our Roberto Clemente.… Our youth have lost an idol and an example. Our people have lost one of their glories. All our hearts are saddened by his tragic parting in a mission of aid to the victims of Nicaragua.”5
New York City Mayor John Lindsay gifted the newly inaugurated Governor Hernández Colón a plaque that read:
“There are many things that bind the eight million people of New York and the people of Puerto Rico together. None of them are more outstanding today than the grief felt over the loss of Roberto Clemente, an outstanding baseball player and humanitarian.”6
Pittsburgh Mayor Peter F. Flaherty on January 2 proclaimed Roberto Clemente Week. During this time of remembrance, a portrait of Clemente hung in the lobby of the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh.7
The White House issued the following statement by President Richard M. Nixon on January 2:
“Every sports fan admired and respected Roberto Clemente as one of the greatest baseball players of our time. In the tragedy of his untimely death, we are reminded that he deserved even greater respect and admiration for his splendid qualities as a generous and kind human being.
He sacrificed his life on a mission of mercy. The best memorial we can build to his memory is to contribute generously for the relief of those he was trying to help – the earthquake victims in Nicaragua.”8
In a White House ceremony in May, Clemente’s widow, Vera, accepted the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Nixon on behalf of her late husband. The medal recognizes “citizens of the United States of America who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens” (per Executive Order 11494; November 13, 1969).
Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator, whose acts of corruption against his own citizens had prompted Clemente’s own desire to travel to Nicaragua himself to ensure the delivery of resources to those who needed them the most, sent a cable expressing his condolences to the Clemente family. Somoza stated, “He died a hero, leaving his family in order to aid humanity.”9
RESPONSE FROM MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
After his death, Pirates players Manny Sanguillén, Bob Johnson, and Rennie Stennett, along with Governor Ferré traveled to Clemente’s hometown and offered their support to his family: Vera and the couple’s three young sons, Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto, and Roberto Enrique.10
One of Clemente’s closest teammates on the Pirates was Manny Sanguillén. Clemente had taken the young Sanguillén under his wing during his rookie season in 1967. Sanguillén was from Panama. He and Clemente had shared similar experiences, a kinship, both being from Latin America. The death of Clemente was especially hard for him.
Instead of attending Clemente’s funeral, he joined a search party that went looking for victims of the crash. Despite rough waters and no diving experience, Sanguillén felt compelled to look for Clemente. He went back to the beach several times in the weeks after the crash. As he noted later, “God sent [Clemente] so people would realize that Latinos were talented.”11
Of his efforts, Sanguillén lamented: “I [kept going back] to see if the ocean had brought him back.”12
Teammate Steve Blass noted Sanguillén’s efforts:
“It was so genuine, his reaction. We’re at the memorial, and he’s down at the beach, still not being able to tear himself away from the proximity, as close as he could get to where the tragedy happened.”13
At Clemente’s funeral in Puerto Rico, Blass concluded his eulogy by noting:
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting friendship’s gleam,
And all that we’ve left unspoken
– Your friends on the Pirate team.14
Blass added, “Roberto Clemente touched us all and we’re all better players and people for having known him. I think we all learned from him.”15
From his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, pitcher Tom Seaver commented that Clemente was “emotional, sincere, a compassionate type of person,” adding, “I could not believe what I heard on the radio, that he was gone. It was just chills, period. It’s a horrible loss, not only to his family and teammates but to all of us, especially the young players. I mean, you look up to Henry Aaron and Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente.”16
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn commented: “Words seem futile in the face of this tragedy, nor can they possibly do justice to this unique man. Somehow, Roberto transcended superstardom. His marvelous playing skills rank him among the truly elite. And what a wonderfully good man he was. Always concerned about others. He had about him a touch of royalty.”17
Kuhn, like many others, saw Clemente as a gentleman, dignified in his actions and one who cared about others.
Pirates chairman of the board John Galbreath echoed a similar sentiment, commenting: “He was one of the greatest persons I knew. If you have to die, how better could your death be exemplified than by being on a mission of mercy? It was so typical of the man. Every time I was down there, someone was always saying how he contributed to the youth and needy of his island; how he was going to make that his life’s work. He did these things without fanfare or anything – just what he thought was right to help somebody else.”18
Clemente’s longtime manager with the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh, commented, “It was so typical that he’d meet his death in such a fashion – helping people less fortunate.… I thought Roberto was the greatest player I’ve ever seen.”19
With tears in his eyes, Willie Stargell said, “Pittsburgh lost a heck of a man.… Clemente’s work with the relief effort was typical. Roberto was always trying to help someone.”20
Around baseball, people similarly commented on Clemente’s athletic greatness. Oakland A’s manager Dick Williams said, “Clemente was the greatest player I have ever watched.” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Jim Brewer said, “Clemente was a fantastic outfielder, the best hitter in the National League and someone who constantly gave everybody fits.”21
On January 2 Jack Lang, the secretary of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, noted that there was precedent for Clemente’s immediate enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A waiver on the waiting period of enshrinement had been issued in 1939 for the ailing Lou Gehrig.22
Joe Heiling, the president of the BBWAA, commented: “We consider Clemente like Stan Musial and Sandy Koufax. He would have been elected and inducted in his first year as an eligible. So why wait.” Immediate plans were to set a meeting with Commissioner Kuhn and Paul Kerr, the president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, to decide how to move forward.23
Within a few months of his death, on March 20, 1973, Clemente was elected to the Hall of Fame, following a special election in which the five-year waiting period was waived. Other inductees that year were Monte Irvin, George Kelly, Mickey Welch, Billy Evans, and Warren Spahn.
Later in 1973, the Commissioner’s Award, presented annually by Major League Baseball to honor a major-league player for his sportsmanship, community involvement, and contributions in the community and on the field, was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award. Since 2002 the major leagues also celebrate Roberto Clemente Day in September.
RESPONSE FROM CITIZENS
In Puerto Rico immediately after the crash, many people went to a beach area close to the airport from which Clemente’s plane had taken off. His friend and former major-league pitcher José Santiago noted: “[I]t was packed with people. It was devastating news for everybody. People were going, ‘Are you sure he boarded the plane? Maybe he didn’t.’ Or claiming, ‘Oh, he’s got to be alive.’ Some would say, ‘He’s clinging to a rock in one of those little islands out there.’”24
The thought of their national hero dead was devastating for Puerto Ricans. Radio stations all over the island canceled regular programming, instead opting for somber music in remembrance of Clemente.25
Hector Lopez, a childhood friend of Clemente’s, later remembered: “The country was completely paralyzed by the news.… The holiday season ended. People took down their Christmas trees and went into a national mourning.”26
Soon after news of Clemente’s death came, some Pittsburgh area residents began circulating a petition to rename Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates’ home ballpark, Roberto Clemente Memorial Stadium.27 The local Mellon Foundation donated $100,000 to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in Clemente’s name.
Ironically, Clemente in death was extolled to a far greater extent than when he was alive. Clemente biographer David Maraniss wrote: “After Clemente died, he was martyred in Pittsburgh and everyone said they loved him, but that was not the case when he was alive. He had to overcome a lot in terms of race and language in Pittsburgh, and did not really win the city over completely until he died.”28
Wells Twombly, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote, “No athlete of Clemente’s quality has been taken for granted quite so shamelessly.… Roberto just couldn’t make the game of baseball look hard enough.”29
Twombly added, “Trouble was that Roberto Clemente could never communicate his true self. It was his opinion that newspapermen had a stringent pecking order. They regarded baseball players in the following way: On top were the American whites, followed rapidly by the American blacks. Next were the Latin whites. Way down at the bottom were the Latin blacks. They were nobody’s children.”30
Similarly, the Black Panthers, noting how Clemente was seemingly misunderstood by many, ran an obituary in their newspaper thanking him supporting their breakfast programs and health clinics operated in Philadelphia. The obituary concluded: “It is ironic that the profession in which he achieved ‘legendry’ knew him the least. Roberto Clemente did not, as the Commissioner of Baseball maintained, ‘Have about him a touch of royalty.’ Roberto Clemente was simply a man, a man who strove to achieve his dream of peace and justice for oppressed people throughout the world.”31
Clemente’s death also brought about quick memorialization in song. Paul New Stewart wrote “The Ballad of Roberto Clemente” and Ramito, a Puerto Rican country singer, released the album Ramito Canta a Clemente – la Tragedia de Nicaragua [Ramito Sings to Clemente – The Tragedy of Nicaragua].32
While responses to Clemente’s death were both varied and ubiquitous, a through line of all the responses was the respect people felt for Clemente, whether they knew him well or not. His athletic prowess, his willingness to fight for justice, and his ability to help others showed that he meant different things to different people. It was, however, Clemente’s premature death that cemented his legacy as an icon.
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