Remembering Roberto Clemente
Posted by JD on December 31, 2009
This is primarily a Mets blog, but I’d like to take a moment to remember Roberto Clemente. Clemente is immortalized in the Hall of Fame for his feats on the diamond, but I’ll always think of him as something much more than that.
I became a baseball fan in 1985, a year that saw the sixth labor contract-related work stoppage since 1972. Player salaries were skyrocketing (Dave Winfield signed a 10-year, $20 million contract with the Yankees in 1980 and the $3 million/year contract would be a bogeyman until 1989) and baseball was dealing with a cocaine problem that would tarnish the careers of stars like Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez, and Willie Wilson to mention just a few. Amid this relative wreckage, the story of Roberto Clemente stood out to me like a lighthouse in a storm.
If it seems like I’m exaggerating, it might be related to the fact that I was eight at the time. I had a very limited personal history with the game and it seemed to be in dire straights from everything I was reading, watching and hearing*. But the problems of current day baseball only served to highlight the excellence of earlier eras, and through this lens Clemente shined brighter than most.
*Of course, the same thing might have applied if I became a fan in the 30’s (Babe Ruth makes more than the President!), 40’s & 50’s (African-American and Latino players will ruin the game!), 60’s (expansion!), 70’s (free agency!), 90’s (salaries!), and 00’s (Performance Enhancing Drugs!).
It was exactly this effect that I feared when I realized that today was the 38th anniversary of his death: I was worried that I may have overestimated his actions in my mind’s eye. A quick refresher course proved that over-estimation is the last thing to worry about.
I knew that charity was dear to Clemente throughout his career, and that he died in an airplane accident attempting to deliver supplies to survivors of an earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua. What I didn’t know was this (from Wikipedia):
Clemente (who had been visiting Managua three weeks before the quake) immediately set to work arranging emergency relief flights. He soon learned, however, that the aid packages on the first three flights had been diverted by corrupt officials of the Somoza government, never reaching victims of the quake. Clemente decided to accompany the fourth relief flight, hoping that his presence would ensure that the aid would be delivered to the survivors. The airplane he chartered for a New Year’s Eve flight, a Douglas DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems and sub-par flight personnel, and it was overloaded by 5,000 pounds. It crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on December 31, 1972.
Read that again. Not content with lending his name to a fund-raising effort, Clemente risked his life to try to aid complete strangers (even if the plane had landed, there was no guarantee the Nicaraguan government would have allowed the supplies to get to the survivors). Is it fair to hold other ballplayers to this standard? No, but only because it’s unrealistic to hold almost anybody to it.
Whatever you think of professional ballplayers, whatever you think of your fellow humans, please don’t forget that there are people out there like Roberto Clemente, people who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help other people.
Roberto Clemente died on this date in 1972. Take a moment out of your holiday to reflect on the sacrifice he made. We’ll all be better off for it.