- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

At RFK Stadium, the Washington Redskins bashed the hated Dallas Cowboys 26-3 to win the NFC championship. At Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, the Miami Dolphins whipped the Steelers 21-17 to take the AFC title and run their seasonal record to 16-0.

Yet neither of these football showdowns was the most significant sports-related story on Dec. 31, 1972, at least from a national standpoint. Not even close.

About 9:23 p.m., as Redskins fans were beginning celebrations throughout the area, a plane carrying relief supplies for thousands of hurricane victims from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after taking off from San Juan.

Among the victims was Roberto Clemente, 38, a great baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates and just as great a humanitarian.

The right fielder’s numbers were the stuff of legend and Cooperstown. Over 18 seasons, he hit .317 with exactly 3,000 hits, was selected for the National League All-Star team 12 times, won 12 Gold Gloves with the help of an incredible throwing arm, played on two World Series winners (1960, 1971) and collected four batting titles.

But above and beyond his skills between the white lines, Clemente was an extremely proud man who valued his life and those of others. Thus it was that he sprang into action - and toward death - that miserable December after a temblor killed thousands and left many more homeless and starving in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua.

Long involved in charitable endeavors, the ballplayer learned that aid packages on the first three relief flights had been diverted by the corrupt regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Bobby Clemente, as he was still called by some old-fashioned baseball writers, decided to accompany the fourth flight, hoping his presence would deter the grafters. But the plane he chartered had a history of mechanical problems and was overloaded by 5,000 pounds. These bad omens proved tragically omniscient.

Others aboard included plane owner Arthur Rivera, pilot Jerry Hill and two friends of Clemente’s who volunteered to help. None survived, nor were their bodies ever recovered.

At 9:20, the plane was cleared for takeoff and lumbered into the air. One eyewitness was Juan Reyes, a security official at the San Juan airport.

“The plane didn’t seem to have the necessary speed to take off,” Reyes was quoted in “Clemente,” a 2006 biography by David Mariniss. “By the sound of the engine, it looked like it was making much effort.”

As the DC-7 struggled aloft, airport controller Gary Cleaveland noticed that the craft was no more than 200 feet above water as it banked to the left and over the ocean.

“Tower, this is 500 alpha echo coming back around,” pilot Hill’s voice sputtered weakly in Cleaveland’s headset.

Failing to understand the transmission, Cleaveland replied, “Say again.”

There was only silence. Then the plane’s image disappeared from the tower’s radar screen.

In San Juan and elsewhere, people who knew Clemente or knew of him soon went into shock at the news. Atop Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington, lights blazed a sad message: “Adios, Amigo Roberto.” Mayor Peter Flaherty declared a week of mourning. In Puerto Rico, thousands of people clogged streets around the home of widow Vera Clemente and the couple’s three sons. Military police stood at attention near the doorway. Flags of the United States and Puerto Rico stood at half-staff.

The Hall of Fame subsequently waived its five-year waiting period for players whose careers had ended, and Clemente was inducted during the summer of 1974 - the first Latin American so honored. The Pirates retired his No. 21 uniform and erected a statue of him outside Three Rivers Stadium. Other honors accumulated for years to come.

“That night on which Roberto Clemente left us physically, his immortality began,” Puerto Rican writer Elliott Castro said, but thousands of countrymen refused to believe it. At the time, many waited on the shore of Pinones Beach near San Juan in the hours after the crash, expecting Roberto to come walking out of the sea.

It never happened, of course. A man so admired and revered by so many was gone forever.

• Dick Heller can be reached at .

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