It was his showcase, and he was going to show the world something it had never before seen: Roberto Clemente
Playing in Pittsburgh, he was overlooked and undervalued, and he knew it. So in 1971, the 37-year-old Roberto Clemente demonstrated just how baseball should be played. "He was a man with a mission," recalled teammate pitcher Nellie Briles.
Clemente played like a man possessed, fielding superbly, unleashing his rifle arm, hitting .414 with two doubles, a triple and two home runs when they counted. As The New Yorker's Roger Angell saw it, Clemente played "something close to the level of absolute perfection...as if it were a form on punishment for everyone else on the field."
From 1955 to 1972, if ever a player could be called the franchise, Roberto Clemente was it. Hitting a remarkable .317 over 18 seasons, collecting 3,000 hits, placing in the Pirates' Top Ten in virtually every offensive and defensive category, Clemente was the odd man out in the 1960 World Series victory. The team's only Latin player, he hit safely in all seven games -- only to be overshadowed by the great Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford New York Yankees, as well as teammate Bill Mazeroski's Series-winning homer in Game Seven.
Most people don't get a second chance. Clemente did, 11 years later. Facing the reigning World Champion Baltimore Orioles, at the end of three consecutive Series appearances, Clemente was once again beckoned to play in the shadow of others -- future Hall of Famers Jim Palmer (and a staff of 20-game winners), Frank and Brooks Robinson, even Pirate teammate Wilver Stargell, who walloped 48 homers in 1971. But when the dust settled seven games later, it was Clemente who was left standing -- and lionized as Series Most Valuable Player for his achievements.
Rallying his team, and especially his four Latin teammates, Clemente provided the edge, the on- and off-field leadership which made them champions. When, for example, Oriole manager Earl Weaver singled out Pirate shortstop Jackie Hernandez for particular abuse, it was Clemente who helped steady his young teammate.
When the Orioles threatened to break the Series open, Clemente made defense an offensive weapon. In Game Six, with Merv Rettenmund on third, Frank Robinson lofted a sure sacrifice fly 300 feet down the line in rightfield. Clemente caught the ball and fired a perfect strike to catcher Manny Sanguillen. Rettenmund never moved.
When, with Mike Cuellar pitching, and the Pirates desperately needing a hit, Clemente hit a tapper back to the mound. Cuellar fielded it cleanly and looked up in astonishment to see Roberto Clemente racing up the line to first. Cuellar, rattled, hurried his toss -- too late! Clemente was safe, and the Pirates stayed alive.
Finally, in Game Seven, with the Pirates and Orioles playing shut out ball, Clemente staked teammate Steve Blass to a run on the way to the Bucs' 2-1, and World Series, victory. When presented with his MVP trophy, Clemente had but two things to say. "I want everybody in the world to know," he said, that this is the way I play all the time. All season, every season." And in Spanish, for the entire world to hear, he asked for his father's blessing. It was this sort of performance -- and attitude -- that made his teammates respect Clemente, and the fans adore him.
Thousands of Pittsburghers recall summer nights with the radio in the backyard. Clemente would hit a 'tweener, or a tater, or make another impossible catch, or astonishing throw, announcer Bob Prince would rasp "Bobby Clemente!," and you could see it all. People collected Clemente memorabilia before there was money in it. These days, it's not uncommon to find Clemente photos tucked among the family snaps, autographed balls in proudly displayed offices, baseball cards framed on corporate walls. Says Duquesne University Law Professor Joseph Sabino Mistick: "Roberto Clemente represented a level of excellence and honor, pride and dignity which we never saw so graphically displayed. You could see all those things in the man, in his face, in the way he handled himself, in the way he played baseball. He understood how much he meant to us, and he took very seriously his role as a leader of youth, as a citizen of the world."
In the end, it got him killed. Fourteen months after his World Series victory, Roberto Clemente died on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1972, taking relief supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua. Hearing that other supplies were being stolen, he proclaimed that they would not steal from Roberto Clemente -- and, against the warnings that the old DC-7 was seriously overloaded, he went aloft -- never to return. Packed with five men and 16,000 pounds of supplies, the airplane bobbed and bucked and wheezed asthmatically for air. Moments later, the engines burst into flames, and the DC-7 pitched into the sea off San Juan. It was never found. The next summer, Roberto Clemente was elected the first Latin American player on the baseball Hall of Fame.