40 New Year’s Eves Ago, My Hero Left This World: #21Forever

Originally published at JulioRVarela.com

I was 3 years old the night my hero died.

I don’t know if I was wearing my Pittsburgh Pirates shirt on that New Year’s Eve in 1972, and I couldn’t even begin to remember the details that swirled around Puerto Rico like bees around a hive. A child’s mind does not recall the facts, it just recalls the tears. The tears, I do remember.

clemente

But now the facts are far too familiar, and the Internet will forever enshrine them. As these excerpts from the January 1, 1973 edition of The New York Times say:

SAN JUAN, P. R., Jan. 1—Roberto Clemente, star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, died late last night in the crash of a cargo plane carrying relief supplies to the victims of the earthquake in Managua.

Three days of national mourning for Mr. Clemente were proclaimed in his native Puerto Rico, where he was the most popular sports figure in the island’s history.

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Mr. Clemente was the leader of Puerto Rican efforts to aid the Nicaraguan victims and was aboard the plane because he suspected that relief supplies were falling into the hands of profiteers.

The four-engined DC-7 piston-powered plane crashed moments after takeoff from San Juan International Airport at 9:22 P.M.

The plane, carrying a crew of three and one other passenger, came down in heavy seas a mile and a half from shore.

Coast Guard planes circled the area trying to locate the plane by the light of flares. The wreckage was not found until 5 P.M. today in about 100 feet of water. There was no sign of survivors.

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Mr. Clemente had been asked to take part in the collection of funds by Luis Vigoraux, a television producer.

“He did not just lend his name to the fund-raising activities the way some famous personalities do,” said Mr. Vigoraux. “He took over the entire thing, arranging for collection points, publicity and the transportation to Nicaragua.”

Mr. Clemente’s relief organization had collected $150,000 in cash and tons of clothing and foodstuffs. More money and clothing are still being donated.

“We sent a ship loaded with supplies during the week,” said a member of the earthquake relief committee. “One of the reasons Roberto went on the plane was to get there before the ship arrived to see the supplies were distributed properly.”

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News of Mr. Clemente’s death plunged Puerto Rico into mourning.

Gov. Louis A. Ferre decreed three days of mourning and Governor-elect Rafael Hernandez Colon, who will be sworn into office tomorrow, ordered the cancellation of an inaugural ball and all other social activities related to the inauguration.

Roberto Clemente was 38 years old when he died. 38 years old.

His baseball feats will forever be celebrated, but Clemente went beyond that. Not a day goes by where I think of how this son of Puerto Rico represented a different type of athlete, one that we rarely see today.

I often wonder: “what if Clemente were still alive today?” He would be baseball’s premiere Latino ambassador, sure, but he would be marching with the justice-seekers, speaking out against violence, and calling for a better world. As PBS’ American Experience says, “Clemente was an exceptional baseball player and humanitarian whose career sheds light on larger issues of immigration, civil rights and cultural change. He would die in a tragic plane crash.”

And that is why I struggle a bit every December 31. Clemente was so much more than a baseball player, but it was baseball that transcended him into places he would have never reached. I have friends from the Pittsburgh area who still consider Clemente the greatest Pirate ever. Everyone loved and admired Roberto (even those who called him “Bobby,” not knowing any better.) The Puerto Rican taking over Pittsburgh. That’s how it happens. That’s how we become a better world. When cultures blend, and we find commonalities and we celebrate achievements.

That is why I know that we can all be like Clemente. You can still stand for what you believe in,  you never have to settle, and still treat people with love, grace, and respect.

Clemente

His son said it best when he told PBS the following:

I would like for people to see my father as an inspiration. To see him as a person who came from, you know, not a rich neighborhood or anything, but from a noble house in Puerto Rico. Probably with no hopes of knowing what he was going to become, but carrying himself in such a way that always had — you know, the values. That was always first. The caring and respect for the parents and siblings, and towards people. Zero tolerance against injustice. Not putting up with being put down. Becoming an activist and letting his message get across very strongly. That should be an inspiration to everyone… understanding how a single individual really truly makes a difference.
— Luis Clemente, son

This New Year’s Eve I still long for the possibilities of what the world COULD have been with Clemente here. Instead, the best I can do is just try and remember that each of us can truly make a difference. This is what Roberto means to me, and this is why I will be #21Forever.

Now I have a 10-year-old son who shares my love of Clemente. And when my son asks me about Roberto, I can show him game footage and tell him stories from my abuelo, my dad, and some Latino baseball legends I had the pleasure to meet in my lifetime (I will never ever forget when the great Mike Cuellar told me and my brothers about the Game 7 homerun Clemente hit off of him at the 1971 World Series). But even when my son and I talk baseball, I also tell him that Clemente was always larger that just baseball. He was a great human being who tried to make a difference. And he succeeded.

¡Que viva Roberto! #21Forever.

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He is also a weekly contributor to NBC Latino. Recently, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR, and The New York Times.

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