Fort Worth, Texas — Roberto Clemente’s body was never recovered, but his legacies as a ballplayer and a humanitarian live on.
I’m not sure which one looms larger, at times.
Baseball’s first Latin American superstar died on a mission of mercy in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico nearly 38 years ago.
He was proud, passionate, outspoken. He refused to ignore inequities and indignities around him, and not just those that pertained to baseball, either.
When relief aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims fell into corrupt hands shortly after a Christmas Day disaster, Clemente boarded a piston-powered aircraft filled with food, water and supplies, and a promise to deliver them personally.
The 38-year-old star rightfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates kissed his wife, Vera, and three young boys goodbye. It was New Year’s Eve 1972.
The ’72 baseball season had ended happily with Clemente collecting his 3,000th hit to become only the 11th major leaguer and first Latino player to reach the milestone.
Now he was aboard a DC-7 loaded down with relief aid, taking off from San Juan International Airport just after 9 p.m., and headed to the capital city of Managua, Nicaragua.
The plane climbed, banked once to the left, then went down in choppy waters less than two miles offshore. The wreckage wasn’t found until the next day.
The pilot had tried to radio for help . . . but too late.
What isn’t too late is for MLB to do the right thing and retire Clemente’s No. 21 Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by baseball in 1997.
Please, let’s not have another 50-year wait to make good on baseball history.
These two men faced similar struggles against racial prejudice in a sport that was slow to make amends, finally did, and now has what I believe is an obligation to display Nos. 42 and 21 side-by-side at every major league ballpark.
Rangers president Nolan Ryan, in the late ’60s, as a young New York Met, struck out Clemente twice — first looking, then swinging — during a Sept. 14, 1969, game at Forbes Field.
“You never could find a comfort level on where to pitch Clemente, so you just tried not to develop a pattern,” said Ryan. “He and Willie Mays were probably the most aggressive hitters I ever pitched to.”
Time to retire No. 21, baseball-wide?
“I never really thought about it,” Ryan said. “But I do think the impact Clemente had on the game, and the way his life ended, it’s an interesting idea.”
Would retiring Clemente’s uniform number diminish Robinson’s iconic status in baseball?
“No, I don’t think so,” Ryan replied. “Their contributions were different.”
Different . . . yet similar. Both men exhibited a strong social conscious and an impenetrable set of ideals.
Both were human-rights advocates and trailblazers for racial equality.
Both endured death threats because of the color of their skin, as did Hank Aaron before breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
Clemente was supposed to die on Sept. 29, 1972 — one day before he collected hit No. 3,000. A letter sent anonymously to the Pirates, care of Clemente, read:
“On September 29th, Friday at Three Rivers Stadium in the top of the second inning you will be shot while playing right field.
P.S. Did you ever get shot with a shotgun before”
Clemente didn’t flinch. P.S. Clemente never flinched.
He was a .317 career hitter. Chiseled body. Regal mannerisms. A gazelle in right field. A cannon for an arm. All the cliches fit.
Just as Jackie Robinson was the right man to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Clemente was a pioneer for proud Latinos a decade later.
Baseball isn’t lily white today because of major breakthroughs by Nos. 42 and 21, each in his own unyielding way.