Roberto Clemente didn’t live to see his 39th birthday. But in his nearly four decades on Earth, he built a reputation as one of the hardest working and most caring professional athletes of all time. For almost 20 years, he served as the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But on New Year’s Eve 1972, the world lost not only a legendary baseball player but an even better human being.
Roberto Clemente’s legendary Pirates career
Before the “five-tool player” tag got thrown around frivolously, Roberto Clemente embodied it. The Puerto Rican native took his talents to America and developed into one of the best players in baseball history.
As a rookie, Clemente didn’t put up terrific numbers. However, he certainly proved he belonged on the big stage despite being just 20 years old. It took him a few years to truly come into his own. And once Clemente adjusted to major league pitchers, he took off.
In his age-25 season, the versatile outfielder earned his first All-Star appearance after hitting .314 with 16 home runs and 94 RBI. That kicked off a string of eight consecutive All-Star selections. In fact, Clemente earned a spot on the coveted team in every season from 1960-1972 other than 1968.
A four-time batting champion, the Pirates outfielder didn’t boast tremendous power numbers. However, Clemente’s ability to hit for contact, combined with his defensive magic from right field, made him one of the top players in the game.
During his illustrious 18-year MLB career, Roberto Clemente won two World Series rings. He also took home the 1966 NL MVP award. Sadly, though, the 12-time Gold Glove winner never got a chance to walk away from the game on his own accord.
Clemente tragically died in a plane crash
Roberto Clemente grew into an international icon. He utilized that platform to give back and make the world a better place. Renowned for his charity work, Clemente’s desire to help Latin American and Caribbean countries ultimately cost him his life.
On New Year’s Eve 1972, the 38-year-old MLB star embarked on a plane ride to deliver supplies to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua. What should have been a positive story turned into a tragic one.
The New York Times reported that the four-engined DC-7 plane Clemente boarded crashed just moments after taking off from San Juan International Airport. The Coast Guard found the wreckage the next day. They failed to find any survivors.
Clemente’s wife, Vera, had actually expressed concern about the plane before her husband boarded. The plane needed a ton of repair work and ultimately shouldn’t have been airborne. Still, that didn’t stop Clemente from attempting to make the trip to Nicaragua.
“We, sent a ship loaded with supplies during the week,” said a member of the earthquake relief committee. “One of the reasons Roberto went on the plane was to get there before the ship arrived to see the supplies were distributed properly.”
Baseball changed forever after his sudden passing
Roberto Clemente’s tragic death shocked not only the baseball community but the world at large. A truly inspiring figure, he made a tremendous impact away from the diamond. Clemente’s selflessness and overall impact on baseball changed the game forever.
Just months after he died, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Typically, players must wait five years to gain eligibility for election. However, that stipulation got waived and Clemente earned 92.7 percent of the votes to gain enshrinement.
In addition, MLB changed the name of the Commissioner’s Award to the Roberto Clemente Award. It is given out to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
A number of famous MLB stars have earned the coveted award. Kirby Puckett took home the honor in 1996. Three years later, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn became the latest recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award. Other winners include Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and David Ortiz.