December 31

This Day in History

Sports

Dec 31, 1972:

Plane carrying Roberto Clemente crashes

On December 31, 1972, an airplane chartered by the professional baseball player Roberto Clemente to bring food and other relief supplies to survivors of a recent earthquake in Nicaragua crashes shortly after takeoff from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Five people were killed in the crash, including Clemente, whose body was never recovered.

Born in 1934, Clemente was a track and field star and Olympic hopeful before deciding to turn his attention to baseball, a national passion in his native Puerto Rico. He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954 and was given a bonus of $10,000--an impressive amount for the time. Due to a league rule forcing major league clubs to keep any player paid more than $4,000 on their roster for an entire season--or risk him being drafted by rival teams--Clemente was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates after the Dodgers relegated him to the minor league Montreal Canadiens.

Clemente made his major league debut in 1955 and spent his entire career with the Pirates, winning legions of fans with his strong hitting and base-running ability and, especially, his powerful throwing arm. The winner of 12 Golden Gloves and four National League batting titles, he boasted a career batting average of .317. Off the field, he became known as a strong voice for the growing contingent of Latino players in the major leagues, earning comparisons to the pioneering African-American player Jackie Robinson.

When a massive earthquake hit Nicaragua in late December 1972, Clemente headed up relief efforts from Puerto Rico, where he spent his off-seasons and played and managed for teams in the Puerto Rican national league. When he learned that the cargo of earlier relief flights had not reached its intended recipients, Clemente decided to accompany the next one himself. The plane that crashed was found to have a history of mechanical problems, and was carrying too much weight. Only three months after his death, the Baseball Writers of America held a special vote to induct Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

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