His Birthday was August 18, 1934. He would have turned 80 years old today. His passing left a huge void in the hearts of the millions of lives he touched. I am one of those millions.
He died wanting to fly to Nicaragua on New Years Eve 1972 with relief supplies for the earthquake victims there. If he were there, then precious resources would get to the people who needed them. Would things be different in Puerto Rico today if he were here? Of course. If he were here with us today, then precious resources would also get to the people of Puerto Rico. There, he is a national hero.
But, the truth of the matter is that its only speculating. News of his loss plunged all who heard it into mourning. What we do know is he left a lasting legacy to inspire the masses.
Roberto Clemente was awarded the "Congressional Gold Medal" in 1973 by the United States Congress. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was also given to him. That award was established by President Harry Truman in 1945 for civilian service during World War II, then President John F Kennedy revived the award to recognize those individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," said President John F. Kennedy.
As a player, he was inducted into the "National Baseball Hall of Fame" the summer after his death and, as a result, Baseball passed a new rule to make players who have died, while still active, to be eligible for the "National Baseball Hall of Fame" before the 5 year waiting period. New York Yankees Captain Thurman Munson would be the first to become eligible after he also tragically died in an airplane accident in 1979. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced in 2002 that September 14th would be known as "Roberto Clemente Day."
"Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente" was a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit. "Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico" with "Carimar Design and Research Studio," along with the support of "Smithsonian Latino Center," collaborated on creating this project. It booked across the country from 2007 to 2012, on display here at the Orange County Regional History Center" between January and March of 2012. Its now archived at Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).
I visited the exhibit on the day of the screening of "Roberto Clemente: A Touch of Royalty." Filmmaker Donald Fedynak (the Writer and Director) was on hand to discuss the making of this film. It follows the triumphant yet tragic end of Roberto Clemente's life. Growing up in Chicago, I remember watching the Chicago Cubs on WGN and, sometimes, the television station would run this film during rain delays.
There's a scene in this rare film where, in the days following the news, a critical mass of people were just standing along the shore and looking out to the ocean, hoping to find answers to the puzzling reality that he was gone. They were singing "Solo Dios Hace el Hombre Feliz." An English translation; man is happy by the grace of God. The recurring theme in the film was the contrast of a happy man and the grieving community.
Roberto Clemente believed that his skill and fortune were God given and his love for family and country helped him realize, at an early age, that true happiness is found in friendships, community, and serving others.
In the David Maraniss book "Clemente, The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," you can find one of the best narrative accounts of the life of Roberto Clemente and leading up to the last days, the last hours, and the last moments, including accounts of countless people close to him and what they were doing when they heard the news.
Where was I? We were in a car, leaving my God Father's home after a New Years Eve party when the news came through the radio. He died when I was 6 years old. But, I remember images of him on Puerto Rican Television playing the Chicago Cubs, walking up to home plate, in front of the brick wall backstop of Wrigley Field. Somehow, it was piped in via delayed video, before the age of cable.
My family moved to Chicago in 1973, the year after he died. Just as he is remembered as the forever young man of 38 years, he also reminds us of our childhood. Time tends to inflate stories.
But, Roberto Clemente is as real as having a moral compass. "Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting you time in this Earth," he once said. That has been the preamble to knowing the Roberto Clemente Story, in a nutshell. The death of a hero is at the forefront of many dreams.