New Year’s Eve 1972: A date that began with much joy and anticipation in western Pennsylvania, but ended with much sadness. The Steelers were playing the undefeated Miami Dolphins for a trip to the Super Bowl. Steelers coach Chuck Noll was facing his old mentor, Dolphin coach Don Shula at Three Rivers Stadium. Incredibly, the Steelers almost won the game, but lost on a fake punt by the Dolphins.
Pittsburgh sports fans thought things could not get much worse, but they did.
Later that night, when most folks were celebrating New Year’s, a small plane overloaded with relief supplies for earthquake victims of Nicaragua left the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico. The plane struggled to get airborne but quickly plunged into the water, killing all on board. One of the crash victims had spearheaded the relief efforts: Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente.
Has it really been forty years since the Pirates’ greatest right fielder (arguably the greatest right fielder ever) took his leave from us on that dark New Year’s Eve?
It seems like only yesterday and so long ago at the same time.
It was my maternal grandfather who first told me about the remarkable Roberto when I was a small child.
Pop-Pop, a lifelong Pirates fan, had watched Bucco legends such as Honus Wagner and Pie Traynor play at Forbes Field.
Now he was telling me amazing stories about “the Great One,” Roberto Clemente. As I grew older I witnessed the exploits of this incredible athlete who patrolled the right field with such grace and agility, equipped with an amazingly accurate cannon for a right arm that gunned down opposing base runners foolish enough to test Roberto.
The stats and awards verify Clemente’s greatness during the 18 years he played professional baseball: National League MVP (1966), National League All-Star (15 seasons), 12 Gold Glove Awards, National League batting champ (4 seasons), hit safely in all 14 World Series games he played (1960 and 1971) and was World Series MVP (1971) at the age of 37.
The following year he became only one of a select few ballplayers to gain 3,000 hits during his career. He was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame following his tragic death.
While plagued with injuries during his career (especially his back) Clemente nonetheless amazed and delighted fans over the ensuing years with his acrobatic catches in right field, his rocket of a throwing arm, his speed on the base paths and his prowess as a batter. Clemente was a unique individual, whose pride in his accomplishments and his homeland were worn on his sleeve every day he played.
He never shied away from telling reporters how he felt physically, something novel back then.
He backed up his bold talk. It was Clemente’s leadership of the Pirates during the 1971 World Series that helped the Bucs defeat the overwhelmingly favored Baltimore Orioles in seven games after losing the first two. Clemente’s timely home runs and flawless fielding gave him a worldwide platform and audience for fans everywhere to see what they had been missing by not being a Pirates fan.
On a personal note, Roberto Clemente was my first childhood sports idol, along with others of my generation here in western Pennsylvania. We lived and died with Roberto and the Bucs back when sports seemed a bit more innocent back then. Our amber-tinted memories of No. 21 as he strode to the batters box, twisting his neck, drawing a line in the dirt with his bat, and entering that familiar stance, bring a smile to those of us who thrilled to each hit of his.
And every New Year’s Eve I take a moment to pay tribute to No. 21, the Great One: Roberto Clemente, for those great memories of baseball past.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.
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