It was 50 years ago today, but I recall it quite well. I welcomed 1973 with my parents. My mother had made some amazing Cuban food, my father had some new Cuban music L.P.s, and it was a blast. We watched the famous ball from New York, then spoke with my brother, who was visiting my uncle in Puerto Rico. I hit the pillow around 2 A.M. No one knew that my uncle’s house was a few miles from the tragedy.
Then I woke up smelling my mother’s Cuban coffee, and she broke the overnight news that Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash. It was stunning:
Clemente was on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake there a week earlier.
At the end of September, Clemente had gotten his 3,000th hit in the final game of the season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a hero in his native Puerto Rico, where he spent much of the off-season doing charity work. Some of his charitable work had taken him to Nicaragua, so Clemente was particularly distressed when he learned that very little aid was getting to victims of a devastating December 23 earthquake near Managua.
The plane took off at 9 p.m. and the sounds of engine failure were heard as it went down the runway. It reached an altitude of only 200 feet before exploding and plunging into the ocean. Rescue workers were sent out immediately, but the task was next to impossible in the darkness. The bodies were never found. The news hit Puerto Rico hard–one friend of Clemente described it as the “night that happiness died.”
A subsequent investigation into the crash revealed that the plane never should have been put in the air and that the pilot had erred by over-boosting the engines.
To say the least, I was shocked to hear the news and to talk to my brother, who gave us a report about how the island was reacting. We had grown up following Clemente’s career. Clemente hit .317 and got #3,000 on his last at-bat of the 1972 season. He was the MVP of the 1971 World Series and hit .318 in that postseason.
It was a rough way to start the new year. A few months later, Clemente was inducted to The Hall of Fame.