The classic American Pie song by Don McLean comes to mind when I think of baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.
When the 1971 World Series hero died tragically in an airplane crash in 1972, it was like part of baseball perished with him. Like in the 1971 American Pie song, this was the day the music died.
I was already a big baseball fan by the 1970s and Clemente was one of my heroes. In my brief infamous Little League career, I tried to imitate his batting stance. He could hit anything, and of course I couldn’t.
Clemente became the first Spanish-speaking ballplayer named the World Series MVP in 1971. In the Pittsburgh Pirates championship triumph over the Baltimore Orioles in seven games, Clemente collected 12 hits and hit .414. He hit safely in all seven games of the series, duplicating a feat he had performed in 1960 when the Pirates beat the Yankees.
He was part of the Pirates murderous lineup in the 1971 season. Clemente hit 13 home runs that year with 86 runs batted in and he batted .341. The Pirates other sluggers included Willie Stargell (48, 125, .295) and Bob Robertson (26, 72, .271).
Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico, played 18 seasons for the Pirates. He was an All-Star for 13 seasons and played in 15 All-Star Games. The right fielder was the National League most valuable player in 1966, the NL batting leader in 1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967 and a Gold Glove Award winner for 12 consecutive seasons from 1961-72. His batting average was over .300 for 13 seasons and he had 3,000 hits during his major league career. He also played in two World Series championships.
Clemente was involved in charity work in Latin American and Caribbean countries during the offseasons, often delivering baseball equipment and food to those in need. On Dec. 31, 1972, he died in a plane crash at age 38 while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming both the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined.