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On This Day: Roberto Clemente Dies in Plane Crash

Last updated: February 15, 2023

On Dec. 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente, all-star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was killed en route to deliver assistance to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. His humanitarian legacy survives to this day.

All-Star Humanitarian

On the baseball diamond, Roberto Clemente was extraordinary. In his 18-season Major League Baseball career, he was a four-time National League batting champion, a 12-time Gold Glove winner and the 11th player ever to reach 3,000 hits.

Aside from the numerous on-field accolades, Clemente is equally celebrated for the compassion and generosity he exhibited off the field.

His need to help the less fortunate was exhibited after an earthquake devastated the Nicaraguan capital of Managua on Dec. 23, 1972. Thousands of people died, fires burned throughout the city and an estimated 80 percent of the buildings collapsed. Its inhabitants were left without water or electricity.

In response, the outfielder immediately began organizing relief funds and supplies for the victims. But when reports surfaced that foreign aid had been falling into the hands of profiteers, Clemente decided to fly to Managua and oversee the distribution of the support he had collected.

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Tragically, his plane—which was overloaded and had a history of mechanical problems—crashed about a mile and a half off the coast of Puerto Rico. There were no survivors.

“The poor people whom he helped during his lifetime, the children, the elderly, the downtrodden, the unfortunate whom he often gave a helping hand to get a new lease on life may not have a Hall of Fame for all to see—but to them Roberto Clemente will never be forgotten, for they have an indelible imprint of Roberto Clemente in their hearts,” wrote The New Pittsburgh Courier.

Clemente’s Legacy

Sources in this Story

  • ESPN Classic: Clemente quietly grew in stature
  • The New York Times: Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash Of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua
  • PBS: American Experience: Roberto Clemente: December 1972: Plane Crash
  • National Baseball Hall of Fame: Roberto Clemente: The Father Of Puerto Rican Baseball
  • Sports Illustrated: SI Flashback: Farewell, No. 15

In recognition of his work, the Baseball Hall of Fame waived its five-year waiting period for admission and inducted Clemente on Aug. 6, 1973, making him the first Latino voted into the Hall of Fame. That same year, MLB began presenting the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the player that best exemplifies the standards of sportsmanship and humanitarianism.

“In Puerto Rico, we remember Roberto Clemente as a national hero, an outstanding humanitarian, an inspiration for the needy as well as a man who was able to solve the human, social and political challenges that life presented to him,” wrote Puerto Rican broadcaster Luis R. Mayoral. “He gave Puerto Rico a sense of identity, new concepts as to hope and respect, and above all, his biggest legacy is that he is still an inspiration 33 years after his death.”

The Life of Roberto Clemente

PBS’ American Experience documentary “Roberto Clemente” is available in its entirety on the PBS Web site, which also features collections of articles on Clemente’s life, death and legacy.

The Smithsonian Institution presents a timeline of Clemente’s life, detailing his childhood, career, family and death.

Baseball Reference provides Clemente’s MLB career statistics.

Related Topic: Thurmon Munson

On Aug. 2, 1979, 32-year-old Yankees catcher Thomas Munson died while attempting to land his private jet at an airport near his hometown of Canton, Ohio. “Munson was a bit of a curmudgeon, but no one played the game harder, and beneath the welts and the scars from the foul tips and the collisions at the plate was a well-hidden vein of sensitivity,” wrote Sports Illustrated.

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