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Remembering Roberto Clemente: 50 years after the plane crash

A beloved Pirate, Clemente died on New Years Eve 1972.

Roberto Clemente Before NL Playoffs

The City of Pittsburgh experienced the tragic loss of former Steelers running back Franco Harris days before being honored on Christmas Eve, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

Franco unexpectedly died overnight leading into Dec. 21; and on the day the Steelers retired his No. 32 jersey at halftime against the Raiders, Steelers President Art Rooney said, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

His death parallels the loss of two-time World Series winner and Pirates legend Willie Stargell on April 9, 2001, the day PNC Park debuted to the baseball world.

Timing is everything on the field or court in sports, but the timing of suffering off of it can bring people closer together than ever before.

Fifty years ago Saturday, Dec. 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente embarked on a relief mission to deliver supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. He never reached his destination.

Clemente’s small plane carrying five passengers was overloaded with goods and crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico moments after takeoff. He was 38 years old.

Arthur Rivera owned the plane that Clemente embarked on and was cited for numerous safety violations in previous years. Little repairs were made to the DC-7 plane before takeoff, ultimately ending Clemente’s life in an attempted act of humanitarianism.

Major League Baseball waived the required waiting period for potential induction into the Hall of Fame and included Clemente in the 1973 class.

Clemente spent his entire 18-year career in Pittsburgh, winning two World Series championships (1960 and 1971), the 1971 World Series MVP, the 1966 MVP award, 12 Gold Gloves, four batting titles and was named to 15 All-Star games. Regarded as the greatest player in Pirates history, “The Great One” recorded 3,000 hits on Sept. 30, 1972. He doubled into the left centerfield gap at Three Rivers Stadium to become the gatekeeper for the 3,000-hit club.

Franco Harris and Roberto Clemente were my dad’s and many other young sports fans’ idols growing up. The earthquake occurred on the same day as the Immaculate Reception.

It’s not just a lesson in sports, but for the grand scheme of life. Life is shorter than anyone could possibly expect it to be. Appreciate what you have and count your blessings. The unpredictability of life can strike at any time. Clemente meant more to people off the field than he did on it, losing his life attempting to help the most vulnerable after losing everything. His desire for helping others and setting a courageous example for people in Pittsburgh to follow embodies the person he was.

As we enter 2023, Clemente’s life lives on in the Roberto Clemente Award honoring MLB’s man of the year and top humanitarian off the field. Clemente Day is celebrated every Sept. 15 to honor The Great One’s contributions to the sport and increased awareness of Latin American baseball. Players show their appreciation by donning the No. 21 on their backs in a symbolic tribute mirroring Jackie Robinson Day.

Fifty years have passed since Clemente was taken from the world, but his legacy remains as the greatest Pirate ever. Gone, but never forgotten.