Roberto Clemente, big hitter with a big heart, dies in 1973

Roberto Clemente, big hitter with a big heart, dies in 1973
Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a portrait. Clemente played for the Pirates from 1955-72.National Baseball Hall of Fame L/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a portrait. Clemente played for the Pirates from 1955-72.

(Originally published by the Daily News on January 2, 1973. This story was written by Pete Coutros.)

There’s something to be learned of a man’s life – of what makes him tick as a human being – by the manner of his death. When the game ended for Roberto Clemente in the sea of San Juan, he was in the act of uncorking the biggest assist he ever made, a feat which will be recorded only by the ultimate scorekeeper.

When the plane carrying relief supplies to Nicaragua plummeted into the Atlantic Sunday night, it curtailed a brilliant career which still had the making of another 500 hits and another year or two in the heady atmosphere of the .300-plus hitter. En route to his lifetime BA of .315, the mahogany skinned Puerto Rican – characterized by some savants of the sweet swing as the best “pure” hitter of his time – scaled the magical .300 mark 13 times. He led the National League in batting four times.

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Runners who ventured to take chances on the basepaths found themselves struck dead by the lightning bolts of his right arm from the far reaches of rightfield, a province he patrolled with the diligence of a shepherd dog tending a flock of sheep. One year, the rifle which masqueraded as his right arm gunned down 23 runners and intimidated scores more.

Despite being named to 12 All-Star teams and earning most Valuable Player accolades in 1966, Clemente sensed that he was being cheated of the eminence due him.

Unlike Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who have tended to skirt controversial situations, Clemente never hesitated to speak out on the racism which plagues the sport.

New York Daily News covers baseball player Roberto Clemente on January 2, 1973. He died on December 31, 1972.New York Daily News

New York Daily News covers baseball player Roberto Clemente on January 2, 1973. He died on December 31, 1972.

New York Daily News covers baseball player Roberto Clemente on January 2, 1973. He died on December 31, 1972.New York Daily News

New York Daily News covers baseball player Roberto Clemente on January 2, 1973. He died on December 31, 1972.

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  • New York Daily News covers baseball player Roberto Clemente on January 2, 1973. He died on December 31, 1972.
  • New York Daily News covers baseball player Roberto Clemente on January 2, 1973. He died on December 31, 1972.

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It bugged him considerably, for instance, that he was shunned by the image makers who put together those lucrative commercials which have made rich men out of Joe Namath and Mark Spitz.

“The hell with them,” he snorted once, “I make endorsements in Spanish countries and give the money to charity.”

At $ 150,000 a year, the 38-year-old star ranked as one of baseball’s more appreciated practitioners. His lifestyle was in keeping with those illustrious numbers.

Somber of mind to the point of seeming sour-pussed at times, the magnificently-torsoed Clemente was the personification of ebullience in his wardrobe. His home in Rio Pedras is one of Puerto Rico’s better works of architecture.

For the son of a man who worked in the sugar fields of Carolina to raise his family, Roberto Clemente would be said to have achieved the sweet life. His wife, the former Vera Cristina Zabala, must be one of the better catches made by any outfielder off the diamond.

With Roberto Jr., Luis, and Enrique, Clemente enjoyed the kind of father-son relationship he spoke of often when envisaging the “sports city” complex he hoped to establish when his career was concluded.

Exported.; atx;RUSTY KENNEDY/AP

Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates drops his bat and heads for first base as he watches the ball get through the infield for a 4th inning hit Tuesday night, September 26, 1972, against the Phillies in Philadelphia.

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Roberto Clemente robs New York Mets’ Cleon Jones of a hit during third inning of the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader at New York’s Shea Stadium, Sept. 21, 1970.

Exported.; atx;AP

Superstar Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates and family take a breather Friday night, July 24, 1970, before pregame ceremonies at Three Rivers Stadium honoring the right fielder.

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The “sports city” idea was the dream he suggested to the press the day he was given a car for being the most valuable player in the 1971 World Series when his .414 batting average, Herculean heaves and generally spectacular play helped bury the Baltimore Orioles.

There would be baseball diamonds and swimming pools and tennis courts in this big “sports city.” And there would be a lake for fathers and sons to go rowing and get to know each other a little better while talking baseball and other things of mutual interest.

Sidelines often by recurring ailments, including a chronically-aching back, Clemente was targeted by some sports writers and players as a hypochondriac. His miseries were real, Clemente insisted, and there were X-rays and doctors’ diagnosis to substantiate him.

What was never challenged was his way with a bat and Joe Garagiola, who’s hit more line drives with his wit than he ever did with a bat, summed it up.

“When Roberto Clemente dies,” said Garagiola, “his body will hit .320.”

In Nicaragua, it’s more like .400.

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