It was 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1972. The day was short, dark, and high-spirited. For three days, generous hearts and beloved baseball fans scoured their pantries and nearby grocery stores to contribute to a philanthropic mission they would never forget. Number 21, The Great One, Roberto Clemente called for action after a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. For Tom Walker, a 23-year-old rookie from Florida, it was an afternoon of admiration. Walker, the father of Pittsburgh Pirates standout Neil Walker, recounts what happened next:
“Over three days, thousands upon thousands of people showed up to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan with goods,” his voice shakes. “We managed to get it all to the airport. Two, young, strong Puerto Rican men loaded the plane. I was in the best shape I had ever been in and did a lot of work myself. Roberto’s friend owned the aircraft. His friend’s brother was the co-pilot. The plane had a history of problems and was supposed to leave at 2 p.m. While we were loading the plane, it was shut down and being repaired. Whoever repaired the plane said it was repaired. It was 5 p.m. I walked up to Roberto and said I wanted to help. I was single — what else did I have to do other than party with my teammates? He walked up the ramp of the plane, looked down, and said, ‘No, no, no. You go home and party,’ in Spanish. There was no additional room on the plane. I turned around and said goodbye. Not for a moment in my life did I ever think that would be the last time I would see Roberto.”
While en route to deliver aid, the plane went down. Clemente, 38, and four others never made it to Nicaragua. “He did anything for anybody that needed help, and it actually cost him his life,” says Walker.
The two baseball brothers had a bond. And shared names. Tom’s given name, Robert. Clemente’s full name, Roberto Clemente Walker, comprises 21 letters and was the foundation for his jersey number. He was raised with his mother Luisa’s maiden name following his father’s, as per Puerto Rican culture. Now, star second baseman, Neil runs onto the field every game day with The Clemente Wall along right field directly in his line of sight. Coincidence or fate? “I don’t think a day goes by that Neil doesn’t think, ‘If my dad got on that airplane, he wouldn’t be my dad,’” says Walker.
With that said, the mystique continues. This year’s Pittsburgh Pirates are well on their way to October. For 20 consecutive seasons, our beloved Buccos have endured losing records, but this season — the 21st — could be the one.
Twenty-one, the number that lives on to represent one of the greatest humanitarians in the world and one of the best players to ever play the game. Conceivably, the handwriting is on the wall and Clemente’s son, Clemente, Jr., feels it too. “It’s amazing how mystical that number is in our life as a family and for me personally,” he says. “If they stop the streak this year, we’ll really be part of something special.”
The titillating game of baseball is not a sport to discount when it comes to prophecy through higher being, and, in many cases, superstition. “I don’t discount anything in baseball or the baseball gods,” says Walker. “There have been so many strange things that have occurred.”
When you ask Clemente, Jr. about unplanned instances, he says: “That’s Dad.”
For example, few months ago, he and his wife, Melissa — divorcée of the late Los Angeles Dodger Jose Lima, Sr. — visited Pittsburgh to present the first scholarship endowment in his father’s name at Duquesne University. Clemente, Jr. fortuitously crossed paths with Andrew McCutchen on his father’s namesake bridge during our June cover shoot. It was by happenstance. They exchanged conversation, phone numbers, and Cutch told us Clemente has always been one of his heroes. That night, McCutchen hit a double and the Pirates rocked the Seattle Mariners, 4-1.
Sports photographer, and owner, curator, and executive director of The Clemente Museum, Duane Rieder says, “Clemente lived the way he died. He died helping — he gave up his whole life for other people.” Rieder tells us Clemente felt God had a plan for him. “He dreamt of himself dying in a plane crash,” he says. “He made sure his best friends were with Vera and the kids on the night of New Year’s Eve.” Each year, Rieder hosts a fundraiser in No. 21’s honor. This year, it will be held on September 19. From 6-9 p.m., hors d’oeuvres and Enginehouse 25 Wines will be served among the archives. A VIP gathering with Rieder, the Clemente family, local sports legends, and Pirates alumni will start at 5:30 p.m. And, a wing for Manny Sanguillen, Clemente’s best friend, will be unveiled.
Clemente, Jr. says he forever visualizes his father as the young man he was.
Clemente, Jr. is a father of three, a grandfather, and now Dad to Jose Lima, Jr., 15, and Preston Lima, 6. In fact, Preston was born on September 30, the momentous day Clemente, Sr. batted his 3,000th and final hit.
Stories such as these, and others never disclosed, are featured in the family’s first published pages, “Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero,” which will grace bookstores on September 24. “We wanted to share an inside look from the family celebrating Dad’s accomplishments in such a short time,” says Clemente, Jr.
The day he died and years thereafter, the island of Puerto Rico went into mourning. “You couldn’t see a car without a white handkerchief or a white veil tied to the antennae,” says Walker. “Everything was focused on his death.” Today, his legacy lives on through Clemente, Jr.; Vera, Luis, and Ricky Clemente; Tom and Neil Walker; Rieder; and every fan who sports a Clemente jersey or shirt at PNC Park. “The aura of Roberto Clemente still being part of the club is absolutely there,” says Walker. “It doesn’t go away and it’s not going to go away.”
The ever-gracious Hall of Famer touched the City of Pittsburgh, the people of Puerto Rico, others worldwide, everyone he knew, and those, like me, who’ve always revered the young photos representing the svelte, lion-hearted ball player.
So, as our current superstars take the field each night, let’s cheer them on with 21 in mind. The season is here. The time is now. And, as we’ve been shown, truth speaks to the phrase there is power in numbers.
“I was always in awe of the man. He always treated me like a superstar, but I wasn’t even a twinkle,” says Tom Walker, on friend, Clemente.
Our sources: Tom Walker, Roberto Clemente, Jr., and Duane Rieder.