Forty years ago this day, Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente climbed aboard a plane in Puerto Rico bound for Nicaragua.
A massive earthquake had struck Managua on December 23, 1972. The quake devastated the city, leaving thousands dead or homeless. Clemente organized relief efforts in Puerto Rico. When he learned that some of the aid had ended up in the pockets of the leaders and had not reached the people of Nicaragua, Clemente decided to deliver the next shipment personally. He assumed his stature would make sure that those in need received the supplies.
On December 31, 1972, Clemente stepped into a DC-7 plane along with the supplies. Not long after takeoff the plane suddenly lost altitude and crashed into the waters off Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never found.
The people of Puerto Rico, Latinos/as and Hispanics, the people of Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, and others admired Clemente for his athletic prowess. He played with fire and passion and grace and an amazing ability.
More than that, the people admired Clemente for the way he lived his life. He challenged the prejudice and racism that affected Latino players. He demanded respect for himself and the people of Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. He worked for people who lived in poverty and responded to the needs of his sisters and brothers. He reached out to children and provided them with opportunities to develop their own athletic talents.
I remember hearing the news the news of Roberto Clemente’s death on January 1, 1973 in Grove City, Pennsylvania. It devastated me. Clemente had been the hero of my childhood. At the time of his death, he was the hero of my youth.
And today – on the fortieth anniversary of his death – I remember and give thanks for Roberto Clemente – my hero still.
See you along the Trail.