The day that baseball died: Happiness was Roberto Clemente, and then he was gone

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If you were a kid growing up in Pittsburgh 40 years ago, you probably feel a little different when New Year's Eve rolls around from the rest of the revelers out there. It was on Dec. 31, 1972, that Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

In those pre-Internet/Twitter days four decades ago, news didn't travel as fast as it does now so most of us didn't hear of the tragedy until the next day, New Year's Day. I was lying half-awake in my bed, trying to ignore the bright, mid-morning sun peeking through the curtains, when my 9-year-old brother burst into my room to tell me what he had heard from one of his neighborhood friends.

"Roberto Clemente is dead! He died in the ocean," he said.

At first it made no sense. Died in the ocean? I figured my little brother was just confused, that some other Roberto Clemente, a Navy pilot perhaps, was the one who died in the ocean. It was probably as much denial as disbelief.

I got out of bed and turned on the radio. KDKA newscaster Ed Shaughnessy confirmed what had seemed too horrible to be true. Roberto Clemente, who just three months earlier had banged out his 3,000th career hit at Three Rivers Stadium, was dead at the age of 38.

Clemente was my favorite player. I remember bringing to my first Pirates game at Forbes Field a homemade sign that said "Happiness is Roberto Clemente." I was sitting down the first-base line hoping he would notice my sign but it was much too small for him to have possibly seen it. That was OK, though, because I was seeing him in person as he made those graceful basket catches in right field. I would attempt, unsuccessfully, to imitate Clemente's unique way of catching the ball when I was in Little League.

The next year, when the Pirates moved to Three Rivers, my dad took me to a game against the Mets on my birthday. The Bucs lost but Clemente hit a home run, pulling back in his patented spring-loaded batting stance and uncoiling a whip-like stroke that sent the ball soaring over the right-center-field fence. It felt like he had done it especially for me.

Now, here I was, struggling to process the idea that I would never see him play again. I spent the rest of that day stumbling around in a fog of depression. I wandered up to the field in Highland Park that had been the scene of many muddy neighborhood New Year's Day football games. But none of the usual gang of kids had shown up. The place was eerily deserted.

That night there was a somber family discussion at the dinner table. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and couldn't eat. I remember asking my parents how God could allow someone like Roberto Clemente to die this way. My mother didn't have an answer but suggested that I say a prayer for his family.

After dinner, I went downstairs, where a black and white television was tuned to the Orange Bowl. It was halftime. I stared blankly at the screen, watching women in sequined outfits twirling batons and gaudily clad band members marching around. "How can they act this way on such a sad day?" I wondered. "They're a bunch of stupid idiots. They're all just stupid, stupid, stupid ... "

Suddenly, the sick feeling in my stomach morphed into a wave of emotion as I burst into uncontrollable sobs. I ran upstairs to my room so that nobody could see the tears running down my cheeks. I got into bed and cried into my pillow. When I finally began to feel drowsy, I remember thinking that the end of the holiday vacation I had been dreading was suddenly a blessing. I was grateful that there would be school the next day. I needed to see my friends and talk about what had happened.

That next day at Fulton Elementary, boys and girls gathered in groups and spoke in hushed tones about Roberto Clemente. It was group therapy. Our teachers indulged us to a point, but then insisted on pressing forward with their lesson plans. I don't remember any grief counseling being available, though some of us could have used it.

The Pirates would return to the field in the spring of 1973 but they were not the same team without Roberto. The players wore a black "21" patch on their uniform sleeves and, while they never used it as an excuse, the shocking death of their team leader clearly affected their performance.

How else to explain why Steve Blass, a National League All-Star pitcher who had won a career high 19 games in 1972, had suddenly lost control and couldn't find the strike zone? How else to account for the fact that a team that had won three straight division titles and came within a game of going to back to back World Series the year before, was on its way to finishing below .500?

The Pirates would bounce back by the end of the decade to win another world championship. They would even find another star right fielder in Dave Parker, the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1978. And I never stopped going to the games.

But baseball has never held the same meaning, the same pure joy as it did in the late '60s and early '70s when Roberto Clemente made me and a lot of other Pittsburgh kids fall in love with the national pastime.

Every New Year's Eve, the memories of the day Roberto died come flooding back. The only thing that is different is that I've stopped asking why he had to be taken from us so soon. Roberto Clemente died the way all great men die, as a hero whose talent was surpassed only by his spirit and determination to help others.

opinion_commentary

Paul Guggenheimer is host of Essential Pittsburgh on 90.5 WESA, the NPR affiliate in Pittsburgh.


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