Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, just four days before the opening of the Major League Baseball season.
Baseball commissioner William Eckert, a retired Air Force general, had such a reputation for indecisiveness during his military career that critics dubbed him "the unknown soldier." His reaction, as commissioner, to King's death was to let major league teams decide, on their own, if they would play on opening day.
A few teams canceled their home openers, but when the Houston Astros decided to go ahead with their April 8 opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Pirates, led by Roberto Clemente, refused to play. They also refused to take part in their next game against the Astros because it was scheduled for April 9, the day of King's funeral.
Clemente, who knew and admired King, was deeply disturbed by the assassination and furious at baseball's initial reaction. He said, "When Martin Luther King died, they come and ask the Negro players if we should play. I say, 'If you have to ask Negro players, then we do not have a great country.' "
The Pirates, who had 11 black players on their roster, more than any team in Major League Baseball, issued a formal statement that they were acting out of respect for "what Dr. King has done for mankind." When other black players, including the Cardinals' Bob Gibson, refused to play until after King's funeral, baseball finally announced the postponement of the opening of the 1968 baseball season until April 10, the day after King's funeral.
Four years later, Clemente spoke about his admiration for King in an interview just before the start of the 1972 season. The previous season, Clemente's Pirates, after making baseball history on Sept. 1 by fielding baseball's first all-black starting lineup, went on to win the World Series.
Clemente, who was MVP of the 1971 series, told the interviewer that what he admired most was King's courage in giving a voice to those who were too oppressed to speak for themselves, people of all colors who "didn't have anything." Clemente believed that when King spoke, he inspired the powerless: "They started saying things and they started picketing, and that's the reason I say he changed the whole world."
Several months later, Clemente's own compassion and courage cost him his life. On New Year's Eve, he boarded a plane in Puerto Rico loaded with aid for victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua because he wanted to make sure the clothing and medical supplies went directly to the people. The plane crashed into the sea on take-off and Clemente's body was never found.
W.P. Kinsella, whose magical novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson inspired the movie "Field of Dreams," also wrote a short story about Roberto Clemente. In "Searching for January," the narrator, while walking the beach in Puerto Rico 15 years after Clemente's disappearance, sees a raft floating to shore. He discovers that the figure on the raft is Roberto Clemente, but a Clemente who looks as if he'd been stranded for only five days.
When the narrator convinces Clemente that 15 years, not five days have passed, and tells him what has happened since his disappearance, a disillusioned Clemente decides to get back on the raft and search for January 1973.
I asked my wife Anita what she thought Clemente would do if he had washed ashore in January 2013 instead of 1988. Remembering Clemente's dream of building a sports city for the youth of Puerto Rico, Anita, who taught first-graders for years, said that, after learning of the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook, Clemente would get back on the raft and head out to sea in search of a better January.
Richard "Pete" Peterson is the author of "Growing Up With Clemente" and "Pops: The Willie Stargell Story," scheduled for publication in May. This article was aired on Southern Illinois University's NPR station, WSIU-FM, as part of Mr. Peterson's Reading Baseball series. He is an English professor emeritus at the university. First Published January 21, 2013 5:00 AM