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Remembering Roberto : It Was 20 Years Ago That Clemente Was Killed on a Mission of Mercy

December 25, 1992|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As they have done for almost two decades, members and friends of the late Roberto Clemente's family will be on a Puerto Rican beach next Thursday, saying a rosary in memory of the extraordinary man whose plane crashed into shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean on Dec. 31, 1972.

Vera Clemente, widow of the Hall of Fame right fielder, walked that same beach for days early in 1973, looking in vain for any signs of her husband.

Twenty years ago, Clemente was on a mercy mission to Nicaragua, where he had played winter league baseball, when a DC-7, carrying food and clothes to earthquake victims, ditched into the ocean less than two miles from the San Juan airport. Clemente's remains were never found, nor were his clothes.

Four days after the crash, his teammates on the Pittsburgh Pirates and other mourners gathered for a memorial service in a small church in Carolina, the village just west of San Juan where Clemente grew up in a barrio.

One of those in attendance, a Panamanian catcher named Manny Sanguillen, announced that he was going to dive into the ocean to look for his father figure. One of the last people to see Clemente alive, Sanguillen had had a horrible premonition about the flight. That New Year's eve, car trouble prevented him from reaching the airport in time to make a last-ditch attempt to dissuade Clemente from taking off.

A determined Sanguillen did go diving for Clemente, although his teammates and Joe Brown, then the general manager of the Pirates, warned him about the dangers.

Everyone wanted proof that Clemente, whose derring-do on the field had sometimes been described as miraculous, was really gone. Vera Clemente, picking up their three young sons at her parents' home after she had dropped off her husband at the airport, heard the phone ringing as she was coming into the house. It was her niece calling with the preliminary news about the crash.

The phone stopped ringing, though, before Vera Clemente reached it. In times of tragedy, people sometimes say unusual things, and later Vera Clemente said: "If only I could have picked up the phone for that first call. I would have said that it was not possible."

The phone rang again after midnight.

"It is Roberto," the niece said through tears. "His plane has crashed. He is dead."

"Oh, no," Vera Clemente said. "It is not possible. He is in Nicaragua."

THE EARTHQUAKE

Two days before Christmas in 1972, a series of earthquakes shook Nicaragua. The worst of them measured 6.2 on the Richter scale, and about 5,000 people were killed.

On Christmas Eve, Clemente was named chairman of the Nicaraguan earthquake-relief drive in Puerto Rico. Henry and Pearl Kantrowitz, close friends of the Clementes from Pittsburgh, were visiting in Puerto Rico at the time.

"Roberto was putting in 14 hours a day on the Nicaraguan campaign," Pearl Kantrowitz said. "He was so busy that he wasn't even eating."

Clemente knocked on doors of the wealthiest people in San Juan. In less than a week, the campaign had filled the old Santurce ballpark with clothing and food. In all, it weighed 150 tons and was valued at $150,000.

THE CONVERSATIONS

On Dec. 29, 1972, Clemente ran into Sanguillen in San Juan. Strong, gap-toothed and ingenuous, Sanguillen was a Bible-quoting catcher with undisciplined skills.

Ten years younger than Clemente, who was 38, Sanguillen had come up to the Pirates to stay in 1969. Refusing to accept walks, much like Clemente, the free-swinging Sanguillen batted .298 or higher in his first four years. Sanguillen had 11 hits--only Clemente, with 12, had more--in Pittsburgh's 4-3 World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 1971.

Sanguillen was playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

"Sangy," Clemente said. "What position you playing?"

"Right field," Sanguillen said. "One game, I play in left."

Clemente smiled.

"Sangy, you play left field or go back to catching. You got no chance to take my job."

"I play right field pretty good now," Sanguillen said. "Not as good as you, but pretty close. I may be the best right fielder in the game when I quit."

"You never come close, Sangy," Clemente said. "Besides, I think I am a better catcher than you."

Before they parted, Clemente said: "I bought a monkey yesterday. I will call him Sangy for you. Adios, amigo ."

Jose Pagan, a Puerto Rican nearing the end of his career, was a valuable utility player for the '71 Pirates. He saw Clemente the day after Sanguillen did and questioned the safety of the flight to Nicaragua.

"You know everything about baseball," Pagan said. "But you know nothing about airplanes."

"The people in charge know what they're doing," Clemente said. "They will not let us take off if we can't make it. If you are supposed to die, you are going to die."

THE FLIGHT

In mid-December, that same four-engine cargo plane had overshot the runway coming into San Juan. The old aircraft landed in a bog and had to be pulled out of the mud. No one was injured.

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