When America’s sports fans turned to their sports sections, New Year’s Day morning, 1973, they saw the headline that launched the year with a shock: “Pirates’ Clemente Dies in Air Crash.”
Roberto Clemente, 38, an icon to Latinos, had died on New Year’s Eve in the crash of a mercy mission flight to Nicaragua. He was on a plane loaded with supplies for earthquake victims.
The son of a Puerto Rican sugar cane plantation foreman, Clemente had rapped his 3,000th and final major league base hit only three months earlier.
Clemente was a baseball stylist, a man who played the outfield in a manner Philadelphia writer George Kiseda once described as “spectacularly reckless.” He had a world-class arm that few runners challenged, was a mesmerizing baserunner himself, and hit .300 14 times.
He was a 12-time all-star and won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. He led the Pirates to two World Series championships, hitting .362 in the 1960 and ’71 World Series. He contributed a two-out, fourth-inning home run in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 victory over Baltimore in the seventh game of the ’71 Series.
He had Hank Aaron-Willie Mays talent, but somehow was never accorded their level of recognition. Baseball people have long wondered how Clemente--inducted into the Hall of Fame less than a year after his death--would have been perceived had he played in New York or Los Angeles.
And Los Angeles is where he would have spent most of his career but for a spectacular muff by the Dodgers in 1954. They signed him in 1953--for $4,000--but assigned him to a minor league roster, exposing him to the next year’s draft. Last-place Pittsburgh made him its first pick in 1954.
The only rap ever directed at Clemente was what was perceived by reporters as a touch of hypochondria. If it wasn’t run-of-the-mill aches and pains, it was food poisoning, malaria or insomnia.
He once told Kiseda, “I feel better when I’m sick.”
The day after he died, Manager Dick Williams of the Oakland Athletics paid him this tribute: “Roberto Clemente was the greatest ballplayer I ever saw. He could do it all.”
Also on this date: In 1967, in the original Ice Bowl game, a huge gamble by Vince Lombardi paid off. On a minus-13 degree afternoon in Green Bay, the teams playing on a frozen field, Lombardi elected to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal with 16 seconds remaining in the NFL championship game. With his team trailing, 17-14, Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr scored over right guard from half a yard away for a 21-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys.