January 1, 1973, was a memorable New Year's Day for me.
My mother had been in the bed sick for several days. Christmas break from school was almost but not quite over for me and I had spent that New Year's Day curled up at the foot of Mom's bed comforting her. Thinking back some four decades now I can still recall the evening newspaper being delivered and me lying there and unfolding it to find the shocking headline among the front page's stories: "Baseball's Clemente Dies In Plane Crash."
Well now, here was a baseball (my favorite sport at the time) superstar I had watched many times in televised baseball games and had collected his bubble gum cards over the years, someone I genuinely admired, and he had suddenly died in a plane crash while on a humanitarian effort to carry much needed supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
I was genuinely happy to have my mom's company at that moment. And a familiar and much discussed family saying (one of my dad's favorites, as I recall), "life is uncertain but death is sure," was considered anew.
A month after I read of Clemente's death, another story appeared, written by AP correspondent Will Grimsley, that detailed the premonitions the baseball great's family had experienced. Roberto Jr., who was seven years old at the time of his father's death, is quoted as saying to his maternal grandfather, with whom he was spending the evening, "Grandpa, Daddy is leaving for Nicaragua, but he is not coming back."
In a New York Times story many years later Clemente Jr., on his childhood experience:
"I can still remember just feeling that something wasn't right,'' he said. ''I told my mother, 'Don't let Daddy go. That plane's going to crash.' She yelled at me. I ran outside. He came out and said, 'I'll come back soon and we'll play catch. I told him, 'You're not coming back.' ''
But that is not all. Grimsley also reports that the father of Roberto Clemente had a premonition as well in the form of a dream:
"I had this terrible dream," the father said, "I saw the plane crash, and Roberto go down with it."
What I came to learn only later was that Clemente himself seemed to have had a premonition that he would die young.
In the authoritative The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia, authored by David Finoli and Bill Ranier, the plane crash is discussed in some detail on page 588. There we learn that a Pirate's teammate, Jose Pagan, was concerned about Clemente's well being and attempted to warn him about the plane's safety. The authors write:
Roberto responded by telling his teammate that he believed in the people who were preparing the DC-7 and if it were time for him to die making the trip, then he would die. Clemente had many premonitions in his life about an early death and was convinced he would never make it to middle age.
The authors then continue with the effort of another Clemente teammate, catcher Manny Sanguillen, to avoid the disaster. Sanguillen had originally planned to go with Clemente on the plane trip but backed out amid concerns about the plane being unsafe:
He tried to get to the airport in time to warn Clemente and try to convince him not to go, but he had car problems and was unable to make it in time.
We are told that for days after the crash Sanguillen dove repeatedly into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean searching for his friend. Clemente's body was never recovered.
Again we are left to ponder "what if?" Clemente seems to have had a fatalistic streak in his psyche. Moreover, being the caring and giving individual he was, it is certain that even absent said fatalistic streak he would not have backed out of his mission. He died trying to aid suffering people.
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