SAN JUAN P.R. Jan 1 1973– Pittsburg Pirates star outfielder Roberto Clemente died on New Year’s Eve 1972 when the cargo plane carrying relief supplies to the victims of the Managua earthquake crashed into the sea.
Mr Clemente was the most popular sports figure in the history of Puerto Rico, the island where he originated from and three days of national mourning was declared in his honor. His inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame was assured having been only the 11th player in the history of the game to achieve 3,000 hits. He also achieved a batting average of 317 which is the highest score achieved by the current baseball players.
38 year-old Roberto Clemente was a four-times National League Batting Champion in a career that spanned 18 seasons.He was included in the All-Star team 12 times and in 1966 won the accolade of the League’s Most Valuable Player. One of the finest defensive outfielders known for his exceptionally strong throwing arm he led the Pittsburg Pirates to victory in two World Championships. The first time was in 1960 and the team achieved it again in 1971 when Mr Clemente was named as the Most Valuable Player in the World Series.
He was traveling on the plane in his role as leader of the Puerto Rican efforts to aid the Nicaraguan victims as he suspected the relief supplies were not reaching the people who needed them most but were being intercepted by profiteers.
The crash happened soon after the four engined DC-7 piston powered plane took off from San Juan International Airport at 9.22pm on December 31st 1972. It was carrying a crew of three and another passenger besides Mr Clemente when it went down in heavy seas a mile-and-a-half from the shore.
The wreckage was not found until 5pm on January 1 1973 as coastguard planes had been circling throughout the night trying to spot the plane by the light of flares. It was eventually found in approximately 100 feet of water and there was no sign of any survivors.
According to airport officials the plane had been making a normal left bank climb after taking off and it is not known if the pilot Jerry Hall radioed in that he was in trouble.
A friend of Mr Clemente Cristobal Colon, who served on the fund-raising committee and collected clothing for the earthquake victims, drove Mr and Mrs Clemente to the airport, but Roberto’s wife Vera was not planning to travel with her husband.
Mr Colon said Mrs Clemente told her husband she was worried the plane was too old and seemed to be overloaded but he assured her everything would be all right.When the pilot turned up late Mr Clemente told his wife if there were any more delays they would postpone the flight until today.
Mr Colon added Mr Clemente had been very insistent he wanted to take the flight so that he could make sure the supplies reached the needy victims.He said, “Mr Clemente had received reports that some of the
food and clothing he had sent out earlier had fallen into the hands of profiteers.”
Television producer Louis Vigoraux originally invited Roberto Clemente to take part in the collecting of funds and he said the baseball player had not just lent his name to the fund-raising activities like some celebrities do. “Roberto took over the entire operation arranging the collection points,publicity and transportation to Nicaragua,” he said.
Mr Clemente’s relief organization has raised 0,000 in cash and a vast amount of clothing and food stuff with more clothing and food stuff still coming in.
One of the fund-raising committee members said a ship loaded with supplies had sailed during the week and Mr Clemente had decided to fly out so he could arrive before the ship and make sure the distribution was properly handled.
The Nicaraguan military leader Anastasio Somoza was scheduled to meet the baseball star at the airport. Mr Clemente’s experience managing the Puerto Rican team when they took part in the amateur series in Managua contributed to his increasing interest in Nicaragua. The series took place in the end of November and December and Mr Clemente’s team finished 5th out of 16 teams which took part.
As soon as news of Mr Clemente’s death reached Puerto Rico Gov. Louis A. Ferre announced there would be three days of mourning and Rafael Hernandez Colon the Governor-Elect who was due to be sworn the following day immediately cancelled the inaugural ball. He also cancelled all the other social events that normally take place when a new Governor is inaugurated.