Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente < back   next >
Images: (from top to bottom) A DC-7 aircraft, the type Clemente chartered for the flight to Nicaragua; Vera Clemente scanning the sea with binoculars after the crash; photos of Roberto tacked to a wall.


His Story


The search for survivors, and then remains, lasted nearly two weeks. Piñones Beach was overrun. Fans stood hour after hour watching search crews. They took private boats out to place wreaths upon the water. Manny Sanguillen, a close friend and Pirate teammate, spent three days diving the shark-infested depths in his search for Roberto. The pilot’s ruined body was eventually recovered. The remains of the two crewmembers, Clemente, and his friend, Rafael Lozano, were never found.

Image: Crowds at Piñones Beach look out to sea near the crash site.

An FAA investigation revealed a history of mechanical problems on the DC-7, that it was overloaded by 4,000 pounds, and did not have a qualified co-pilot or flight engineer. Clemente did not know any of this, though he had some concerns about the plane.

Yet he flew, and the moment the plane plunged into the heavy Atlantic seas, Roberto’s story ascended to mythic status. He became hero to an entire nation.

Around the world, private citizens and government officials eulogized Clemente, organized special memorial services, raised funds for the relief effort, and for Clemente’s lifelong dream, Sports City. The Mayor of Pittsburgh, Peter F. Flaherty, declared the observance of “Roberto Clemente Memorial Week.” The President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, praised Clemente and made a personal donation of $1,000 to the earthquake victims of Nicaragua.

Clearly, the legend of Roberto Clemente was written long before his death. He wrote it with his life. But the way Clemente died underscored the way he lived and lifted his image to icon.

"… now it is 31 years since the accident, and I receive mail from fans of different ages. They use his name for babies and some send me the birth certificate to sign. And really, it doesn’t stop. Every year. United States. Latin America. Europe."
—Vera Clemente

"He was a very serious and dedicated individual when it came to anything he did in life. Professional… Quiet, but firm. Dedicated completely. He had a lot of pride in being Roberto Clemente the baseball player, but it was not the type of pride where he thought he had authority to demean other people. He never did that. He was simply proud of the ballplayer that he was. I think bottom line for him was trying to show other Puerto Ricans and other human beings that regardless of how poor you are, the color of your skin, your main language, if you dedicate yourself to a cause, you can be a winner. That was bottom line for him."
—Luis Mayoral
Latin American baseball executive, former broadcaster, and friend of Clemente


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