Roberto Clemente’s Untimely Death
Clemente spent much of his time during the off-season involved in charity work. When Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, was affected by a massive earthquake on Saturday December 23, 1972, Clemente (who had been visiting Managua three weeks before the quake) immediately set to work arranging emergency relief flights. He soon learned, however, that the aid packages on the first three flights had been diverted by corrupt officials of the Somozoa government, never reaching victims of the quake.
Clemente decided to accompany the fourth relief flight, hoping that his presence would ensure that the aid would be delivered to the survivors. The airplane he chartered for a New Year’s Eve flight, a Douglas DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems and sub-par flight personnel, and it was overloaded by 4,200 pounds. It crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on Sunday December 31, 1972. A few days after the crash, the body of the pilot and part of the fuselage of the plane were found. An empty flight case apparently belonging to Clemente was the only personal item recovered from the plane. Clemente’s teammate and close friend Manny Snaguilen was the only member of the Pirates not to attend Roberto’s memorial service. The Pirates catcher chose instead to dive into the waters where Clemente’s plane had crashed in an effort to find his teammate. Clemente’s body was never recovered. Tom Walker, former MLB pitcher (1972-1977), helped Clemente load the plane and because of the plane’s weight load, Clemente told him not to go with him on the flight. Walker’s son is Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman, Neil Walker.
In an interview for the ESPN documentary series SportsCentury in 2002, Clemente’s widow Vera Clemente mentioned that Clemente had told her several times that he thought he was going to die young. Indeed, while being asked by a reporter about when he would get his 3,000th career hit in July 1971, Clemente’s response was “Well, uh, you never know. I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen tomorrow.”