Monday, December 31, 2012


Exactly 40 years ago, on a night normally reserved for celebration and optimism, my dad's favorite player died.

Roberto Clemente.

Happy New Year? Yeah, right.

My dad didn't show emotion too often, and he really didn't this time either. Maybe he cried in private. I don't know. But his silence and melancholy in addressing Clemente's death spoke volumes. A little bit of him died, too.

Clemente, 38, went down in an overloaded and malfunctioning airplane off the coast of San Juan, P.R. It was carrying relief supplies to survivors of an earthquake in Nicaragua. He was on the flight because the country was ruled by a corrupt dictator, and food and supplies were not getting to those in need. He insisted on going to ensure proper dispersal. Typical Clemente. Always thinking of those less fortunate and always standing up for what's right.

How would I have reacted if my favorite player, Brooks Robinson, suddenly died while doing something so noble? I was 10 and pretty sure All-Stars of Clemente's and Robinson's pedigree lived forever. But nobody lives forever. Some leave us much too soon. Dad would die of cancer 15 years later at age 62.

It took a while to understand why Clemente appealed to him. Upon reflection, it began to make sense. Both were outcasts of sorts.

Dad, born in 1924 in Pittsburgh, often spoke of the racism he encountered early on. He was a medium-skinned Italian, a longtime able seaman and the oldest of eight siblings with parents from the Abruzzi region of Italy. He was not welcomed everywhere and called a "Dago'' more than once.

Clemente, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, spoke broken English and was embarrassed by a lot of sportswriters who actually would write quotes like "Me like hot weather, veree hot. I no run fast cold weather.''  

Some called him the Puerto Rican hot dog. Others called him a lot worse.

I think Dad felt empathy toward Clemente while supporting and defending him at every turn. Yes, sometimes he criticized him. It was one thing for him to yell at Bobby; it was another for someone else to do so. 

During the '71 World Series, when Clemente was holding hitting, base-running and throwing clinics seemingly each game, Dad was an added "voice in the booth,'' smugly telling me, among other things, that Frank Robinson was being outplayed by his right-field counterpart. With every Clemente hit, homer and throw, I seethed.

That pettiness was all forgotten on Jan. 1, 1973, when I saw my dad's stoned-faced reaction to The News.

"I don't believe in color. ... Thanks to God, my mother and my father taught me never to hate, never to dislike someone because of their color,'' Clemente once said. 

Forget about his 3,000 hits and first-ballot Hall of Fame status. Clemente was a humanitarian first and foremost. He also was my dad's favorite player, and later by extension, one of my favorite players.

I can't think of one without thinking about the other.

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