Monday, December 31, 2012

A Tragic New Year's Eve

Like most American boys, I was a baseball fan.

I'm not as much of a baseball fan today as I was then, but there was a time in my life when I collected baseball cards and I knew the names of the starting lineups of every major league club.

That was in the days before cable TV and the internet, before you could watch a baseball game every night of the week.

There was a "game of the week" televised every Saturday afternoon, and the all–star game was always an excuse for a special baseball broadcast. But, most of the time, I had to try to find a baseball broadcast on the radio if I wanted the experience of a major league game on a summer night.

Even though I couldn't watch much major league baseball when I was a child, I still felt fortunate to be living at a time when so many truly gifted players were playing — guys like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Lou Brock, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, etc.

Where I grew up, the St. Louis Cardinals were the primary team of interest. There were fewer teams in those days, and, although I didn't live in Missouri, I did live close enough to get there in a day — and my family did go to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play a few times.

One of the Cardinals' division rivals when I was growing up was Pittsburgh, and the Pirates had one of my favorite ball players of all time — Roberto Clemente — so I always made a special effort to pick up the Cardinals broadcast when St. Louis played Pittsburgh.

I almost never got to see Clemente play. Once a year, I could usually count on seeing him in the all–star game — he made 15 all–star appearances in his career — and he played in two World Series, winning the MVP in the 1971 Fall Classic.

But I have few memories of seeing him play in the game of the week. That's a shame because he really was a great player — and a truly generous man.

That's what led to his death on this night 40 years ago.

While most of his teammates were celebrating the dawn of a new year, Clemente was trying to make sure that aid for earthquake victims in Nicaragua reached the people who needed it. Three previous flights carrying emergency relief aid had been diverted by corrupt government officials and had never reached their intended destination.

So Clemente decided to accompany the fourth shipment, apparently hoping that his status as a major–league baseball star would guarantee that the aid would get to the survivors. He chartered an airplane for a New Year's Eve flight.

The plane, however, had a history of mechanical problems and was overloaded by about 4,000 pounds. It crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico shortly after takeoff. A two–week search of the Atlantic Ocean failed to produce a body.

I remember hearing the reports that his plane had gone down. I was spending New Year's Eve at a friend's house, and his parents had told us we could stay up to watch the inaugural broadcast of Dick Clark's "New Year's Rockin' Eve," which became an annual event — and, presumably, will remain so even though Clark died earlier this year.

As the name would imply, there were many musical guests slated to appear on the show, one of which was Three Dog Night. My friend and I were big fans of Three Dog Night in those days, and, if Clemente's plane had not gone down a few hours earlier, that would have drawn all our attention that night.

But we were both baseball fans, and we both liked Clemente. I remember the two of us sitting in front of the TV, all thoughts of Three Dog Night and New Year's Eve driven from our minds as we hoped against hope that Clemente might be found alive.

But his body was never recovered.

We went ahead and watched Dick Clark's special that night, but the excitement was gone. I remember falling asleep thinking not of the new year that had dawned but of the lives — especially Clemente's — that had been lost.

No comments: