On This Date in Sports December 31, 1972: The Death of Roberto Clemente

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com


Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Roberto Clemente is killed at the age of 38 in a plane crash. He was flying in an overloaded plane from his native Puerto Rico to Nicaragua to deliver relief supplies to victims of a recent earthquake. The DC-7 plane was believed to be two tons over the recommended maximum weight. All five passengers were killed when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean a mile off the coast of Puerto Rico, attempting to turn back and making an emergency landing. 

Roberto Clemente was born on August 18, 1934, in Puerto Rico. In 1954, he signed his first professional contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A year later, he made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted him out of the Dodgers system, which is a precursor to the current Rule V draft. Within a few years. Clemente became one of the top stars in Pittsburgh as the long-dormant Pirates became contenders. In Clemente’s first All-Star season, the Pirates stunned the New York Yankees in the World Series on Bill Mazeroski’s home run in Game 7. During the series, Roberto Clemente hit .310.

Throughout the 1960s, Roberto Clemente was one of the top outfielders in the National League, with perhaps the greatest outfield arm in the history of baseball, winning the Gold Glove every season between 1961-1972. Clemente was also one of the top hitters in the game, winning the batting title in the National League four times (1961,1964,1965, and 1967.) In 1966, Clemente had his best power numbers with 29 home runs and 119 RBI as he won his only MVP award. Five years later, Roberto Clemente had his signature moment leading the Pirates to a World Championship in seven games over the Baltimore Orioles. Clemente hit .414 in the Fall Classic, with two home runs and four RBI as he made several outstanding defensive plays to earn MVP honors.

In the season following his legendary World Series performance, Roberto Clemente was hampered by injuries limiting him to 102 games. While remaining a .300 hitter, Clemente needed the entire season to collect the 118 hits needed for the 3,000 hit milestone. At the time, he was just the 11th player in MLB history with 3,000 hits. With the season-ending, Clemente reached 3,000 with a double off Jon Matlack of the New York Mets, who was that year’s National League Rookie of the Year. Clemente would come around to score on a single by Manny Sanguillen and was taken out of the game to rest up for the upcoming postseason as the Pirates had already clinched the National League East. Roberto Clemente would not take another at-bat in the regular season. In the NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds, the Pirates' quest for a season straight World Championship ended heartbreakingly as the Reds scored two runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 and advanced to the World Series on a walk-off Wild Pitch.

Roberto Clemente was a well-known humanitarian who spent much of the off-season doing charity work. When a deadly earthquake hit Managua, Nicaragua, on December 23, 1972, Clemente went to work to get aid to the quake victims. At the time, Nicaragua was led by President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was accused of stockpiling aid and not delivering it to the people who needed it most in the nation’s quake-stricken capital city. Clemente spent New Year’s Eve with a handful of volunteers, including Tom Walker, a pitcher playing in a local winter league. Clemente told Walker to go home and enjoy New Year’s Eve as he planned to fly with a small crew to unload the plane on New Year’s Day. 

 Heading into the flight, friends, and family had an awful premonition, as Roberto Clemente himself had a dream of his funeral. The flight was delayed due to mechanical troubles. After some quick repairs, the plane took off at 9:11 pm from Isla Verde International Airport in San Juan. The plane took off in bad weather and began to show signs of trouble right away as the plane had a slow takeoff and had trouble reach altitude. A short time later, they radioed San Juan stating they were turning around and requested an emergency landing. Before it could get back to shore, the DC-7 had massive engine failure and crashed into the ocean, killing all five on board. 

There was a search for several days after the crash, but the bodies were never recovered as the fuselage sunk to the ocean's bottom, with only pieces floating to the surface. The baseball Hall of Fame chose to waive the five-year wait to get Roberto Clemente elected into the Hall of Fame in 1973. MLB would also name its Humanitarian Award after Roberto Clemente. In recent years that has been a movement to make Roberto Clemente a saint in the catholic church.