The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1972 season ended abruptly on a wild pitch that cost the team a trip to the World Series.
Most fans thought it couldn’t get worse. Until New Year’s Day.
“I was home from college. My mother came in and told me when I was bed, and she wouldn’t have been any more serious or sad if it were a family member,” recalled Canonsburg resident Harry Miale, age 21 at the time. “She thought it was so important that she didn’t want me to hear it on the news.”
Her message: Star outfielder Roberto Clemente had been killed the previous day when an airplane he’d loaded with supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims crashed shortly after takeoff, just off the coast of his native Puerto Rico.
Forty years later, jerseys bearing Clemente’s retired No. 21 are ubiquitous at Pirates games, as fans who are too young to remember him personally still pay tribute.
For many of those who grew up watching him play, his death at age 38 represented an unfortunate rite of passage.
“It put things in perspective,” said Bob Sproule, a North Hills resident and chairman of the Forbes Field Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, who also was 21 at the start of 1973.
“I remember the day before, the Steelers lost to the Dolphins, coming down off the high of the Immaculate Reception,” he said about Franco Harris’ epic play the previous week. “After hearing about Clemente, you thought, OK, it’s only a football game.”
He spent his entire major-league career, from 1955 through 1972, in Pittsburgh. But the circumstances surrounding Clemente’s death made international headlines.
“What’s ironic for me is that I remember where I was when I got the news that Clemente had died. At that point I was in Rochester, N.Y., and had no idea that two years later, I’d be broadcasting for a Pirates affiliate,” recalled Lanny Frattare, who went on to call Pittsburgh games for 33 years.
Frattare, 64, now is a faculty member in the communications program at Waynesburg University, instructing sports broadcasting.
“I never saw Clemente play in person, but I spent many years alongside Steve Blass,” he said about the longtime Pirates color commentator and Clemente’s teammate for nine years.
“He’d always talk to me, on the air and off the air, about the grace and courage with which Clemente played the game,” Frattare said. “He’d often talk about some of the great plays and great throws he made.”
Fans like Miale saw plenty of those as they grew up watching the Pirates.
“When I was a little kid, we went to one game a year,” said Miale, a Monongahela native. “We got to go for free, through something called the Knothole Club. You wore your Little League uniform.
“We met in Chess Park in all of our uniforms and got on the bus. When we got to Forbes Field, we sat out in right field, and sure enough, there was Roberto Clemente. I couldn’t believe I was breathing the same air as Roberto.”
Miale, a former Brownsville Area School District superintendent who now is an adjunct professor at University of Phoenix, remembers playing sandlot baseball with neighborhood friends and emulating the Pirates.
“The biggest kid was always Roberto Clemente. I think his name was Billy,” he said. “When that kid wasn’t there, the next toughest kid, he got to be Roberto Clemente. He’d play right field and use his batting stance.”
Sproule, who attended his first Pirates game in 1959, said he has one particularly specific memory of seeing Clemente play, which he looked up to pinpoint the date as Sept. 2, 1966.
“Toward the end of the summer, Clemente was approaching 2,000 hits,” he recalled. “Dad got his office box seat tickets, for a Friday night at Forbes Field. He had 1,999 hits, and we’re waiting for the 2,000th.”
The magic hit turned out to be a three-run home run to help Pittsburgh win, 7-3.
“I remember specifically, the Pirate bullpen was along the RF line, and the people in bullpen started waving to the upper deck and yelling, ‘Bring the ball down,’” Sproule said.
Clemente, of course, went on to notch exactly 3,000 hits, and he was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame the summer after his death. He also has been accorded many posthumous honors in Pittsburgh
“I think the Pirates have done a tremendous job of making sure Roberto’s legacy has not been forgotten,” Frattare said. “One of the things that I was most proud of was that when the Pirates hosted the 1994 All-Star game at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates were in Cincinnati the week before, and the team hired a private plane to fly us back for the unveiling of the Clemente statue. I served as master of ceremonies.”
The statue now is in front of PNC Park, near the Roberto Clemente Bridge, not far from the 21-foot-tall Roberto Clemente Wall inside of the stadium.
He has been gone for 40 years, but in Western Pennsylvania, he stands little chance of being forgotten.