December 31, 1972: The end of the Great One
I don’t usually write about sports or personal memories, but it’s New Year’s Eve, and we’re all nostalgic fools, right? So here’s one from the way-back machine.
38 years ago today the Great One, Roberto Clemente, died in a plane accident delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente had been gathering supplies since December 23 when the earthquake took place. (December 23 was the day of the “Immaculate Reception,” a sacred date in the lore of Western Pennsylvania, but another story altogether. It’s enough to note here that it created great joy in the region, even though most of us never saw the game became the NFL blacked it out in the Pittsburgh region.)
Clemente had already sent three planeloads of goods but learned that the supplies were stolen by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. (Somoza was technically only the head of the National Guard but in fact ran the country.) So Clemente decided he would personally supervise the distribution of the next cargo to ensure it would go to those in greatest need. The plane was over-loaded and had mechanical problems. It crashed into the Caribbean soon after take-off from Puerto Rico.
We didn’t hear about it until New Years Day. It was shocking and cast a pall over Western Pennsylvania for many days. Even his most insistent detractors (who would later deny that they ever spoke ill of him), who claimed that Roberto dogged it with fake back pains, were struck. It was the weirdest and most depressing New Year’s Day I ever experienced. People spent a lot of time looking down. We didn’t even watch bowl games that day. Or we tried to and didn’t have that much interest.
All of this was even more upsetting because we had begun to see the beginning of another dynasty in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had lost on that very day to the Dolphins (the team with the undefeated year), but didn’t play badly (Bradshaw had 2 interceptions; Franco didn’t get 100 yards) and only lost 21-17. Since we had gone so many years without any hope, and we had won one playoff game that year (something that no one had ever expected to live long enough to see), it wasn’t as hard-to-take as later playoff defeats would be. And then came the news about Roberto.
I can’t believe it’s been 38 years. Much water has gone under the bridge since then. I will never forget that day, however. We had gone through a decade of political violence and shocking deaths. It had been more than four years, however, since Bobby Kennedy was gunned down, and although the war was still raging (Nixon had ordered the brutal bombings of North Vietnam the previous two weeks), the assassinations and heart-breaks of the deaths of those who seemed to provide hope were receding into memory. We were becoming used to a jackbooted administration that excused the killings of foreigners, American soldiers and American protestors as simply the price of achieving their small-minded goals. It was less than two months since the depressing election, and the bitterness of that defeat was just beginning to wear off. So when Roberto died, it brought back the sadness of the world in general that we had tried to forget about for a few days. It also brought back to memory the time when we learned of the stark endings of those we had personal, hopeful relations with, people we put in that part of the mind where dwells the fragments of hope and comfort and good will, no matter that we never knew them personally.
But we (in the towns of mills and mines) thought we personally knew Roberto. We followed him daily. He was one of the few larger-than-life figures, who you could see for a small price (in those days even working families could afford to send their children to a baseball game) and maybe even chat with if you were lucky. Clemente was not someone who courted controversy (although as a Puerto Rican he got his share of abuse in a city not known for tolerance), and so no one expected him to encounter violence. He quietly did good deeds, most we only learned of later, and we expected him to lift our spirits on demand. It was confusing and hard to fathom that this man, who we associated with entertainment and relief from troubles of a political nature, died while doing good work in a place he had only a casual connection with. A place run by jackbooted thugs that were friends of our own rulers. That made it all the more bitter.
Looking back now from a time when athlethes routinely involve themselves with drugs, alcohol deaths, assaults, shootings, steroids, cheating, and so forth, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when someone like Roberto was actually accepted as just another athlete. Today he would be considered a saint. We just took him for granted.
He of course was a great baseball player. I won’t go into the statistics, but you can look them up. He had just been awarded the MVP designation of the 1971 World Series. (I recall watching those games in a hospital in New York City sitting with an acquaintance from Western Pennsylvania who had a stroke while in the city where he had no friends. But that is yet another story.) Clemente’s last hit in the regular season of 1972 was the 3,000th of his career. But the awards didn’t even begin to describe the drama that would play out when, with a man on base, the batter would hit a ball deep into right field. No matter how deep, the possibility was always there, that the Great One would run it down and throw the runner out a home or even at third. And even that drama and the at-bat heroics (he had hits in each of the 7 games of the dramatic 1960 World Series and the seven games of the 1971 World Series) paled in comparison to his gentle nature. He was in fact a great soul, a mahatma.
RIP, Roberto. I assume where he is now, the right field fence is quite a bit farther back. But I bet he can still gun them down at home.