On Dec. 31, 1972, MLB outfielder Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. He was only 38.
Even though this plane crash occurred 51 years ago, we still remember the name Roberto Clemente. He has an entire day in the MLB season named after him, where all Caribbean-born players may wear his sacred number 21 as a tribute.
Despite Clemente not having met the minimum requirements for time passed after the end of his baseball career, the Baseball Writers Association of America held a special election on March 20, 1972, waiving the requirement and electing Clemente to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Clemente was a transcendent baseball talent who paved the way for countless MLB stars from the Caribbean. In his 18 seasons of MLB play, Clemente hit a .317 batting average, 240 home runs and exactly 3,000 hits.
For his career resume, Clemente was selected to play in 15 All-Star games. He won the National League MVP award in 1966. He led the National League in batting average four times and won the Gold Glove award in 12 consecutive seasons from 1961 to 1972. Clemente also won two World Series titles.
Aside from his historic playing career, Clemente is remembered for his humanitarian efforts, as well as his bright attitude and compassionate demeanor.
Throughout his career, Clemente would spend his offseasons doing volunteer work for charity. He cared deeply about the people of the Caribbean Islands and Central America, as he came from the region and saw himself in many of the young inhabitants of these areas.
On Dec. 23, 1972, a massive earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua. Clemente had recently visited the area and was immediately inspired to send aid. He sent three flights of relief aid to Nicaragua, but was distraught to find that all three flights had been diverted by the corrupt government at the time.
Clemente wanted to ensure that help reached those who needed it in the city, so he decided to be present on the aircraft for a fourth flight so he could monitor the situation.
Unfortunately, the plane that happened to be available for Clemente’s expedition was not entirely mechanically sound and had a history of malfunction. Additionally, the flight crew was understaffed, short a co-pilot and flight engineer.
Astoundingly, the crew that was responsible for the plane also managed to overload it by 4,200 pounds, creating an extremely unstable flight environment for Clemente and all others aboard the aircraft.
The plane’s engine failed and quickly crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico shortly after takeoff.
The baseball world was devastated. Clemente was already a living legend and beloved icon. His untimely death cemented his legacy as one of baseball’s most important historical icons.
MLB’s yearly sportsmanship award bears the name of Roberto Clemente, and is awarded to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
Roberto Clemente will never be forgotten by the baseball community, especially by the hundreds of Caribbean-born baseball players he has inspired to chase their dreams.