My Hero Roberto Clemente and the Night that Happiness Died

By Scott T. Allison

What is the recipe for heroism?  Because heroism is in the eye of the beholder, there is no set list of ingredients.  But research reveals that especially powerful and iconic heroes are perceived to possess at least a few of the following characteristics: (1) They have an exceptional talent; (2) They have a strong moral compass; (3) They incur significant risk; and (4) They make the ultimate sacrifice while helping others.

Roberto Clemente was one of those rare and extraordinary individuals who beautifully, and tragically, fit this mold of a great hero.  Today, nearly five decades after his untimely death, Clemente’s accomplishments, selflessness, and charisma make him an unforgettable hero.

It was the way he lived — and the way he died — that made Clemente an extraordinary individual.

Former major league baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once said of Clemente, “He had about him the touch of royalty.”  Duane Rieder, Director of the Clemente museum, said, “There was something about him that was magical.”

Dozens of schools, hospitals, parks, and baseball fields bear his name today. What did Clemente do to earn such veneration?

We won’t delve into many details of Clemente’s genius on the baseball field.  We will say that while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972, he won multiple batting titles, gold glove awards, world championships, and most valuable player awards.  He hit for average and he hit for power.  He possessed great speed and a rocket of a throwing arm.

Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully once said, “Clemente could field a ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”

People who knew Clemente argue that as great as he was a player, he was an even better human being.  When traveling from city to city as a player, he routinely visited sick children in local hospitals.  According to author David Maraniss, Clemente spent significant time in Latin American cities, where he would often walk the streets with a large bag of coins, searching out poor people.

Wrote Maraniss: “To the needy strangers he encountered in Managua, Clemente asked, “What’s your name? How many in your family?” Then he handed them coins, two or three or four, until his bag was empty.”

Clemente once said, “Any time you have an opportunity to make things better and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on this Earth.”

Clemente, a native Puerto Rican, also overcame significant adversity.  He grew up in poverty.  He faced discrimination, living in an era that tended to be intolerant of non-White, non-English speaking people.  Because baseball at the time was dominated by Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Aaron, Clemente was often overlooked in discussions of great athletes.  Clemente was also hampered throughout his career by chronic back and neck problems.  Yet he still managed to accumulate an exemplary record of achievement on the baseball field.

To this day, the manner in which Clemente died still brings people to tears.  In late December of 1972, he heard that Managua, Nicaragua, had been devastated by a massive earthquake.  Clemente immediately began arranging emergency relief flights from Puerto Rico.  He soon learned, however, that the aid packages on the first three flights never reached victims of the quake.  Apparently, corrupt officials had diverted those flights.  Clemente decided to accompany the fourth relief flight to ensure that the relief supplies would be delivered to the survivors.

The airplane he chartered for a New Year’s Eve flight, a Douglas DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems and was overloaded by 5,000 pounds.  Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed into the ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico, killing the 38 year-old Clemente and three others.

News of Clemente’s death spread quickly.  In Puerto Rico, New Year’s Eve celebrations ground to a halt. “The streets were empty, the radios silent, except for news about Roberto,” said long-time friend Rudy Hernandez. “Traffic? Except for the road near Punta Maldonado, forget it. All of us cried. All of us who knew him and even those who didn’t wept that week.”

Nick Acosta, another friend, summed up the fateful night that Clemente died.  “It was the night the happiness died,” he said.

Check out this short video showcasing Clemente’s selfless heroism:

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10 thoughts on “My Hero Roberto Clemente and the Night that Happiness Died

  1. So this guy who used his celebrity status and his newfound wealth to help others died because a bunch of slimy, corrupt politicians diverted his contributions intended for suffering earthquake victims. That sort of thing just infuriates me. We always seem to lose the people we need, while suffering from a surplus of those who drag us down.

    This was a great choice for an entry, Scotty and George. Here was a true role model.

  2. Roberto Clemente is one of my personal favorite heroes on this site, along with Pat Tillman, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. Each of these heroes perished in the self-less act of the journey. Heroes such as the previously mentioned show a moral fiber that is far beyond the call of duty- which is partially the reason why their demise is inevitable.


  3. Roberto Clemente might be one of the biggest names ever to play in the MLB not only for abilities on the field but his efforts off the field. It is sad the way he passed away but even though he is gone he will never be forgotten, especially in Pittsburgh!

  4. Before reading this blog, I honestly had no idea the type on character Clemente possessed. His generosity and humility are inspiring, and it is truly sad that his life ended abruptly in the way that it did. His quote at the bottom of the fourth paragraph is a testament to the type of man that he was, and that type is truly amazing and truly heroic.

  5. Much like Ali, Clemente’s athletic accomplishments are enough to elevate him to the status of a hero, but it is what he did off the field that makes him one of the greatest. His dedication to philanthropy is why he is one of my personal heroes as he put his fame and fortune aside to help those in need.

  6. After having just written about the heroism of Jackie Robinson, I found this post to be especially moving. Not only did Roberto Clemente experience and push through harsh racial adversity on and off the baseball field, (thus automatically deeming him as a hero in my eyes), he also died in the process of performing an extraordinary heroic act. From his ability to overcome his own physical limitations, to his success in pushing past strong racial barriers and coming through it all as a shining athlete, to his ultimate attempt at helping those in need, Roberto Clemente was a definite hero and an inspirational icon.

  7. Roberto Clemente is someone that i had heard about growing up, but didnt really put much effort into looking to see who he was. Roberto Clemente is not only a great player but also a great person to use his wealth to help others is a big step that many athletes need to learn. Not only sharing your money for good reasons but to also die in the line of trying to help others makes him an even greater person.

  8. “Any time you have an opportunity to make things better and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on this Earth.” That is such a powerful message that reaches out to everyone all over the world. Clemente was a hero not only because of his athletic skills, but because he wanted to better the world and that is what he strived to do every single day.

  9. Roberto Clemente is a blessed individual who wants to share his blessing with other people. In the modern era, the play who receives the Roberto Clemente reward in the major leagues is one who shows excellence on and off the field, for Roberto Clemente was the paradigm of a professional who gave just as much on the field as off the field. Because of this, Roberto Clemente is a hero not to just baseball fans but to people all around the world.

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