I was only nine years old. I didn’t know where Nicaragua was.
After reading small article in the newspaper on my living room floor, I was upset. It was shocking. Where was Nicaragua? I had to look it up in an encyclopedia. It was a country in Central America. I really didn’t know where that was either, so I looked that up as well.
Eventually, I would learn about an earthquake that happened in Nicaragua on Dec. 23, 1972. Eight days later, my favorite baseball player had died in a plane crash trying to take supplies to the survivors.
I pulled out my baseball cards and found my Roberto Clemente card. He would be 81 years old now on Aug. 18. I always remember this date because he shares a birthday with a lifelong friend that I met a few years later. I think it was an important date for both of us since we loved baseball so much.
Clemente provided one of the first memories I have of baseball, as I watched the 1971 World Series on television. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the series as the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles in seven games.
One year later, he joined the 3,000-hit club with that exact number on a double off New York Mets pitcher Jon Matlack during the final regular season contest.
The Pirates would win the National League East, but they fell to the Cincinnati Reds in the championship series. The fifth game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati would be the last time Clemente would be on a baseball field.
To a nine-year old Clemente was just a great baseball player. To an adult quite a few years later, he was still a great baseball player, but he was also a humanitarian whose influence is immeasurable.
A Brooklyn Dodger?
Clemente was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to the 1954 season out of Puerto Rico and the 19-year old would play for the Montreal Royals.
That winter, the Pirates drafted Clemente and he would begin his big league career in 1955. By 1960, the Pirates would be the world champs having beaten the New York Yankees as Clemente was just hitting the prime of his 18-year career.
The right fielder played in 15 all-star games and won 12 Gold Gloves, while winning four NL batting crowns in 1961, 1964, 1965 and 1967. He was the NL MVP in 1966 when he hit 29 homers and knocked in 119 runs with a .317 batting average.
After his death at age 38, the National Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election in 1973 and he was inducted into the shrine. He finished his career with 240 home runs, 1,305 RBI and a batting average of .317.
The Final Baseball Card
I’ve collected numerous baseball cards over the years and nothing is more important than the 1973 Roberto Clemente Topps card. It was his last real card. I was so excited to have pulled it out of a pack. To this day every time I see it, I remember that day on the living room floor.