Losing A Hero

Roberto Clemente races down the first-base line against the Orioles during the 1971 World Series. Focus On Sport/Getty Images

On Dec. 31, 1972, New Year's Eve ended in Puerto Rico before the clock struck midnight.

At first heard as a rumor, then sadly confirmed, Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente Walker had died in a plane crash while en route to deliver aid to the victims of a devastating earthquake that had struck Nicaragua weeks before. He was 38.

It was unbelievable. Together with Orlando "Peruchin" Cepeda, Clemente was the island's main star in major league baseball. Among his accomplishments, the still-active player had won four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, two World Series titles and a National League MVP award, plus he registered a .317 lifetime batting average.

Only months before, in September, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit, an almost unattainable milestone at that time. In October, he had managed the Puerto Rican team at the Amateur World Series held in Managua. Afterward, he fulfilled his dream of offering free baseball clinics to children throughout Puerto Rico.

Then suddenly, he lost his life just hours before the end of the year that perhaps gave him the most exposure in baseball and in his own homeland.

Ramiro Martinez, the octogenarian Cuban sportscaster who resides in Puerto Rico, met Clemente in 1954. Ever since, he developed what he described as something more than a friendship with the baseball player born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 18, 1934.

"In '54, I met Clemente for the first time when he debuted with the Triple-A International League team from Montreal, the Royals, at the stadium in Montreal," remembered Martinez, who was connected to the player for almost the rest of his life. "Here [in Puerto Rico], I had the opportunity to spend time with Roberto during every moment of his existence.

"We were no longer friends; a brotherhood was formed."

Before Clemente passed away, I had the opportunity to watch him play. In fact, my first contact with baseball was several years before, when I saw my first game of the Puerto Rican Winter League between the Cangrejeros de Santurce and the Senadores de San Juan. I had accompanied my great-grandmother to see her Senadores, the team to which the legendary Clemente belonged.

Among the stars of this San Juan team were two Cincinnati Reds rookies: Johnny Bench and Lee May. On the opposing team, I remember these stars playing: Paul Blair, Frank Robinson, Dusty Baker, Ruben Gomez and Juan Pizarro. It was a constellation of legends, but the one who caught my attention was the Senadores' No. 21.

Clemente had a strange way of playing baseball. He liked to send pitches towards the right side even though he was a right-handed hitter. His style of running the bases, shaking his entire body wildly, was different, something I gathered from the limited amount of baseball I had seen. When the opposing team's bat cracked, he ran automatically to the area to which the ball was headed and caught it, throwing it back to the diamond almost effortlessly without it bouncing on the field.

It surprised me how he got an opponent out at the plate with a throw from deep in center field to home without bouncing the ball -- a perfect throw.

I confess that I don't remember what team won on that winter night in the '60s, but my loyalties remained with the San Juan team and with Clemente. From that night onward, I would place the radio earpiece in my ear and listen to every game he played, keeping a rough score on an improvised graph paper without knowing that I was keeping my first box scores.

Later in my life, I saw Clemente do things I believed to be impossible and which very few baseball players have matched.

Martinez maintains he had never met anyone like Clemente. Beyond his exploits on the baseball field, the veteran sportscaster highlighted the player's qualities off it.

"Of the many, many people I have met in this dynamic radio and television line of work, I haven't met anybody with such incredible qualities of humanism and discipline, of being a good father, a good son. Roberto was an exemplary human being," said the broadcast journalist, who narrated dozens of Clemente's games on radio and TV, including his 3,000th hit, a double off New York Mets left-handed pitcher Jon Matlack on Sept. 30, 1972.

As if acting on a premonition, Clemente did many things that year, on a personal level and on the field. Martinez was a participant, both as a sports journalist and also as a promoter in several of the activities.

"That year, 1972, he did it all. He signed on as a representative with Eastern Airlines, a project that entailed visiting throughout the United States, different places in Latin America and different places of scarce economic resources. He was going to take on a production to be narrated by Jose Ferrer and Orson Welles," explained Martinez. He recalled that part of the project included filming various children in Pittsburgh, where Clemente played almost his entire career in the majors, and a tribute to the Pirates' play-by-play announcer back then, Bob Prince.

During that activity, Martinez convinced Clemente to manage Puerto Rico's amateur baseball team that traveled to Nicaragua, a key event in his story.

I got to see Clemente very little in Puerto Rico after that charmed year. Claiming worsening injuries during the 150 games that the Major League season lasted back then, the idol played very little winter baseball during his final years. In fact, my last memory of him in the San Juan uniform was when he managed the team circa 1970.

Of the few games I did not attend that year was the one with his only at-bat, as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning against the hated Cangrejeros: a long fly ball toward right field which was an out to end the game.

Clemente did not show much as a mentor even though he had several of the Pirates' top players under his command that year. If memory serves me correctly, San Juan did not make the playoffs, double the pain for the fan who saw the failure of his hero from the dugout.

I recall that Clemente was not a fan of granting interviews, something that was not well-received by Puerto Rican journalists of the time and did not win him many friends. As for me, I never could get his autograph, since he stayed away from fans during warm-ups, which was very discouraging in my development as a youth.

Joaquin Martinez-Rousset unintentionally earned prominence with Clemente in the final days of the star player's life. Editor-in-chief at The Associated Press, Martinez-Rousset was assigned to cover the events at the Amateur Baseball World Series in Nicaragua in 1972, during which the right fielder managed a Puerto Rican all-star team.

"I traveled from San Juan to Miami, and in Miami, I ran into Clemente, who was headed to Nicaragua," said Martinez-Rousset, 94, who sat next to him on the plane that took them to their Central American destination. "We talked the entire trip about his adventures and his injuries. He said that he had real injuries, and unbeknownst to everyone, he continued playing."

The veteran sports journalist, with whom I worked at several newspapers in his native Puerto Rico as sports editor and in general news, recalled that Clemente was a very complex person.

"Clemente was not an overly friendly person. He had his detractors. From what I was told, at Hiram Bithorn [Stadium] in San Juan, some people would sit there just to insult him," Martinez-Rousset said.

I remember tracking Clemente's road to hit number 3,000. In fact, it was an event of incomparable magnitude in Puerto Rico. It was an age in which satellite television transmissions were few and radio was the main medium for listening to baseball via the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, a regional program aired in Latin America with the voices of Martinez, the current play-by-play announcer for the Miami Marlins, Felo Ramirez and legendary Cuban sportscaster Buck Canel.

As he inched closer to the legendary milestone, all Pirates games in which Clemente participated were aired. Clemente was the first Hispanic player to break that barrier, and I had the opportunity to enjoy it live just days before the end of the season and right as they were preparing to end the transmissions, since they were costly and ineffective.

"He made it, completely clean, just like he wanted it," Ramirez described when Clemente connected the double that carried him to immortality against Matlack, a lefty who, ironically, had pitched in Puerto Rico for Clemente's Senadores de San Juan.

Martinez vividly remembers the moment of Clemente's accomplishment. After the game, in the locker room, he claims that the player asked him to organize baseball clinics in Puerto Rico as part of his celebration.

"Roberto asked me in the locker room if I could organize some clinics for him because he wanted to celebrate his 3,000th hit with the children of his hometown," the journalist recalled.

Martinez said that he also lived with Clemente's moments of humanism in Nicaragua, among them seeing to the care of a legless boy of limited resources. The boy's parents could not provide a prosthetic leg because it was something said to not among the priorities of Nicaragua's then-dictator, Anastasio Somoza.

"That was one of the many things he [Clemente] did, where he did not take photographers or cameramen, nor did he tell anyone. He enjoyed it alone. He planned with the woman to take her to the United States and didn't get to see it through. In the stadium that would later be named after him, he met a woman who was eight months pregnant who asked him to take her to Puerto Rico so that her son would be born in Puerto Rico, and Roberto said yes to her," Martinez continued.

The boy who had lost his leg died during the Dec. 23 earthquake, but Clemente never found out.

After a forgettable series in Nicaragua, Clemente returned to Puerto Rico to offer the baseball clinics in different places throughout the island. Preceded by great publicity through Martinez's radio and television programs, the clinics were carried out in several municipalities of Puerto Rico. In San Juan, the Summit Hills neighborhood was one of them. Later on in my life, I would find out that Martinez-Rousset and his son, Avelino Munoz Stevenson, both journalists for a moment in their lives, were part of the clinics and an inevitable piece of this puzzle.

That Christmas, like all Christmases in Puerto Rico, was a time for family celebration and parties galore. Because I was only 14, I barely celebrated outside the family circle. One of the news stories that cast a pall over that celebration was the devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, in which thousands were left homeless, hundreds died and with which all Puerto Ricans became involved, mostly because of the campaign that Clemente prepared along with various civic leaders and popular artists.

Television host Luis Vigoreaux was one of these artists; his weekend programs dominated television ratings in Puerto Rico. Thanks to his involvement with Vigoreaux, and with folk singer Ruth Fernandez, Clemente was able to call upon the generosity of the Puerto Rican people and take aid to Nicaragua. The player argued that his proximity to Nicaraguan people compelled him to cooperate in this manner. Two aid supply collection centers were set up at Hiram Bithorn Stadium and at the Plaza Las Americas shopping mall. Over the first few days, two planes loaded with medications, clothes and food were sent to the Central American nation.

The generosity had led to being able to load a third plane, on which Clemente offered to travel. Many urban legends were born of that decision. It was said that Vigoreaux and Fernandez would accompany Clemente in his humanitarian deed. The player said it was his obligation to go with the cargo in order to prevent Nicaraguan soldiers from stealing the supplies, which had been alleged regarding prior relief shipments. Other versions indicated that the player had unrelated interests in taking the flight to a town close to the capital, Managua, mainly to visit someone there.

Volunteers from various places were in charge of loading the planes that would take the cargo to Managua. On Dec. 31, a young Munoz, his brother Joaquin and a third neighbor from the Summit Hills neighborhood were entrusted with moving onto the plane everything that would be taken on that third trip.

"We loaded the cargo. First, the medications and medical equipment, then the clothes, and finally, the food," Munoz, who is Martinez-Rousset's son, remembered. "When we were leaving -- it was Dec. 31, we were all headed home to celebrate -- Clemente came and ordered us to empty the plane because the medicines had to come out first, then the food and finally the clothes. The plane had been loaded backward."

At that moment, Munoz did not know that the plane was overloaded due to the weight of several dentist's chairs that were donated, plus the tons of medications and clothes. What he did notice was that the aircraft, a DC-7 propeller plane, was leaking oil.

"The plane was overloaded," said Munoz, 56, who was a sports journalist for many years. "Clemente was told not to travel, to switch it to a different day."

In fact, Vigoreaux himself told Clemente not to travel that night, but nothing changed his mind.

"I heard Vigoreaux say it," said Benny Agosto, a longtime baseball man who has been associated with the Puerto Rican Winter League for more than 40 years and who knew Clemente.

New Year's Eve in Puerto Rico had a few peculiarities that were unique to that era. Among them was the live television transmission of the countdown to the start of the new year, with the participation of famous artists. I believe one of those programs was hosted by Vigoreaux himself, and I recall that they made constant mention of Clemente's mission to Nicaragua.

My family welcomed every year at the homes of different relatives, where we would go share, celebrate and watch the television in anticipation of the arrival of the new year. One of the most awaited moments was the reciting of poem called "Bohemian's Toast," by Guillermo Aguirre Fierro, a tradition I practice to this today. It was always recited moments after the arrival of the new year, after which we would go back to our home.

At approximately 10 p.m., the countdown transmission was interrupted.

Martinez-Rousset awaited the arrival of his son, Edmundo, from the city of Mayaguez, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, on a late evening flight. His son was returning from his studies at the island's top engineering school.

"We had gone to visit several neighbors, which was customary in the days leading up to the new year. When we got home, the phone rang. It was my son Edmundo, who got out of a taxi and the driver told him there was a rumor that Clemente had died when his plane fell on the coast across from the airport", Martinez-Rousset described.

At that time, he asked his son to return to the airport (then called the Isla Verde Airport) to find out more details. Martinez-Rousset called the director of the AP in Puerto Rico, American George Arfeld, who mobilized all his editors and journalists.

"He told me, let's go to the office," Martinez-Rousset recalled. "I sent my son to speak with my daughter's husband, who was the on-duty supervisor at the Puerto Rico Ports Authority at the airport, to try to find out more information for me ... and that was how we confirmed that the plane had crashed."

Former major league catcher Manny Sanguillen, then was playing for the Senadores in Puerto Rico, tried to see Clemente before the plane took off, not to convince him not to go, since he was unaware that he was going to fly to Nicaragua, but rather as a response to an invitation to talk from someone he considered his friend and mentor.

"Luis Mayoral [sports journalist and a friend of Clemente] came and knocked on my door. He said to me: 'Do you know that Clemente's plane crashed?' I went crazy ... and we never communicated. That always affects me. That's why I don't like talking about that day," Sanguillen told Puerto Rico news daily, Primera Hora.

The somber news host confirmed what was circulating as a rumor: Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash.

"The plane took off and fell immediately to the ocean on the coast across from the Cangrejos Yacht Club in the Isla Verde area. There are no survivors," the news anchor narrated.

The New Year's Eve party on television never came back on the air. The countdown was stopped. The "Bohemian's Toast" was never heard. The year 1973 had kicked off unnoticed, and Puerto Rico had lost its favorite son.