A large mural of Roberto Clemente adorns Parque Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores in Managua, Nicaragua. (Courtesy of Steven A. Melnick, Ph.D.)
New Year’s Day, 1973: As the world awoke to the awful news and details emerged about the accident that claimed Roberto Clemente’s life, fans could only ask why. Why Clemente? Why was such a kind human taken at such a young age? Why had the plane malfunctioned? But one “why” stood above the others – why had Clemente chosen to personally deliver the supplies?
Math tells us the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But given the brazen corruption of the Nicaraguan government, Clemente felt the 1,413-mile line between the collected supplies in San Juan and the needy Managua victims went through him.
Clemente first visited the country in 1964 as a member of the San Juan Senators, champions of the Puerto Rican Winter League that now bears his name, to play in the Inter-American Series. The competition pitted squads from several nations and had replaced the Caribbean Series, last played in 1960.1
The Senators boasted a formidable lineup, anchored by big leaguers Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Luis Arroyo, José Pagán, and Juan Pizarro, but fell to the local Cinco Estrellas (Five Stars) team.2 By then, Clemente was an established All-Star, known not just for his prowess on the field but also for his humanitarian nature. He established a close bond with the Nicaraguan people, under the yoke of the Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled since 1936.
The Somozas were unabashed in their corruption. The United States, mindful of the threat of communism (both real and imagined) in Latin America, threw its support behind two generations of strongmen, giving the financial and military backing that was interpreted as a blank check to oppress Nicaraguans.
Against this backdrop, Clemente returned in November 1972 to manage the Puerto Rican team in the amateur World Series (later renamed the Baseball World Cup).3 Cuba ransacked the field en route to a 14-1 record, while the United States and Nicaragua both finished 13-2.4
Only a few weeks later, a devastating earthquake destroyed most of the capital. Cruelly, it occurred on December 23, as the country prepared for Christmas. It shook the capital around 12:30 A.M., thereby catching most of its inhabitants asleep. Its 6.3 magnitude was followed by large two aftershocks within an hour, adding panic and confusion to the sea of people crowding its damaged, darkened streets. The calamity was the first humanitarian mission handled by the fledging organization Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), now a leader in medical relief.5
Amid the destruction, foreign aid rushed in, only to be met with inadequate distribution schemes and a government all too eager to withhold goods for its own benefit. Major Raúl Pellegrina, who delivered one of the first loads of aid collected by Clemente, was ordered by the armed forces to hand over the cargo. He refused, stating he “had told the soldiers that if they didn’t let him through, he would reload his aircraft and fly back to San Juan and tell the great Roberto Clemente what was happening.”6
Clemente’s role has been well chronicled. He personally organized relief efforts, and after hearing about the dictatorship’s craven behavior firsthand, chose to board the ill-fated flight. Despite the plea of his wife, Vera, not to get onto the plane, Clemente remained steadfast in what he saw as a moral mission: “When your time comes, it comes; if you are going to die, you will die. And babies are dying. They need these supplies.”7 His death added to the disaster’s toll, estimated to be between 4,000 and 11,000 people with almost two-thirds of a million displaced.8
In the 1970s, domestic and international criticism of the regime mounted, and Anastasio Somoza Debayle turned even more restrictive.9 The Frente de Liberación Nacional Sandinista (National Sandinista Liberation Front) toppled the government in 1979 but, seduced by power, ruled in a similar autocratic fashion.10 Tensions remained as US-based contra-revolutionaries fought a guerrilla war that engulfed the entire nation. Peace came in 1990 with free elections, won by a coalition of anti-Sandinista parties. Democracy and peaceful transitions were sustained into the twenty-first century, though Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2006 has brought repression and contested elections. Political opponents have been frequently jailed since 2015.
While baseball was already the country’s favorite sport, no Nicaraguan had reached the major leagues before Dennis Martínez (“El Presidente”) in 1976. Since then, 14 others have joined the big show, influenced by Clemente’s passion.11 Martínez, who played in the Puerto Rican Winter League, was direct in his praise: “I had two idols – one as a pitcher, Juan Marichal, and the other, Clemente, as a human being. I took him as an example. He got me to think more about helping your neighbor, helping children, which was his goal and now mine too.”12 In 2019, a Clemente statue was erected in the main lobby of the Dennis Martínez National Stadium in Managua, forever linking both luminaries.13
Beyond Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh, no other place honors Clemente’s memory as much as Nicaragua. His eldest son, Roberto Jr., joined the Board of Directors of the International Baseball Academy of Central America (IBACA).14 The Masaya stadium is named after Clemente, as are schools all over the nation. In a touching moment of humanitarian partnership, the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh provided financial assistance for the creation of the Roberto Clemente Health Clinic in Nicaragua, which serves tens of thousands of needy patients.15
Clemente is seen as a unifying figure by both pro- and antigovernment groups. On December 31, 2013, then-Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana and the Nicaraguan parliament honored Clemente with the “Hero in Solidarity” award, the nation’s highest civilian honor.16 A large mural of “The Great One” was unveiled six years later at the Luis Alfonso Velásquez Flores Park in Managua, with 400 Little Leaguers in attendance.17 Sports journalist Carlos Reyes addressed the crowd, noting, “[D]espite not being born in Nicaragua, Roberto Clemente was the most important baseball player of Nicaragua, because giving one’s life for others … has enormous meaning.”18
A year later, at the height of the global coronavirus pandemic, four juvenile teams played a one-day tournament in the Roberto Clemente Youth Stadium, with organizers proclaiming, “Roberto Clemente is a symbol of respect, a symbol of greatness and above all of solidarity. We, the youth, the Nicaraguan youth, the sports promoters, the athletes, remember his example and continue the example of solidarity.”19
Sadly, politics has tainted the memory. As the Ortega regime repressed its opponents – more than 300 were killed in 2018 alone – the government seized Clemente’s memory for a series of exhibition games pitting the Puerto Rican and Nicaraguan national teams. Middle son Luis Clemente spoke with great sadness: “I just feel a little concerned that we were not approached by those who know us from Nicaragua that could have let us know ahead of time what was the ulterior motive behind all of this. We were left in the dark totally.”20 Even Martínez, the greatest living baseball icon of the country, agreed, stating his opposition to a “stadium made for baseball” being used as barracks for the military.21
Marlon Torres, chair of the Nicaraguan Sports Institute, had previously stated: “As a sportsman and as a person, Clemente is worthy of imitation; we should remember and maintain his memory all year long, not just on this date.”22 Almost three decades earlier, the government had taken such a step, issuing a set of postage stamps celebrating baseball players, including Clemente.23
Nicaragua’s affection for Clemente is unique. It was not ordained like Puerto Rico’s, where he was born and belonged, nor was it based on the luck of the Rule 5 draft, which allowed Pittsburgh to pluck him from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ system. Instead, it was earned through acts shaped by his ethical conviction.
Vera Clemente stated that her husband’s bond with Nicaragua was rooted in the similarities between the two nations: “We came to Nicaragua and found the people as we had been in Puerto Rico 30 years ago. Roberto saw himself in the boys in the streets – without shoes, living in a one-room house – much like it had been when his father worked for the sugar mill in Carolina. He changed a twenty-dollar bill into coins each morning and called boys over as we walked to ask them about their families. What work did their father do? What had they eaten for dinner last night? And then he dug into his pockets for them.”24 It’s fitting both winter leagues have retired number 21 from being worn on the field, but to forever remain in people’s hearts.25
TONY S. OLIVER is a native of Puerto Rico currently living in Sacramento, California, with his wife and daughter. While he works as a Six Sigma professional and teaches at several University of California extension campuses, his true love is baseball and he cheers for both the Red Sox and whoever happens to be playing the Yankees. He is fascinated by baseball cards and is currently researching the evolution of baseball tickets. He believes there is no prettier color than the vibrant green of freshly mown grass on a baseball field.
1 The first version of the Caribbean Series (1949-1960) featured a four-nation round-robin tournament pitting Cuba, Panama, Mexico, and Puerto Rico against one another. After Fidel Castro’s ban on professional baseball, the competition was not held until 1970, with Venezuela and the Dominican Republic replacing the departed Cuba and Panama. In the past decade, Cuba and Panama have returned, and Colombia has been added.
2 Néstor Duprey Salgado, “Clemente en la víspera de la gloria.” Self-published book, 2017, 381.
9 Anastasio Somoza García, the patriarch, ruled until 1956. His eldest son, Luis, took over until 1963, and Anastasio (Junior) governed until 1979. Puppet presidents briefly ruled during the time, but the Somozas were the unquestionable leaders.
10 The movement was named after Augusto Sandino, who organized an ultimately unsuccessful revolution against American economic dominance in the 1920s. For more information, see http://www.sandinorebellion.com/.
https://sabr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/research-collection4_350x300.jpg300350sabr/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.pngsabr2022-12-13 16:16:472022-12-13 16:16:47Why Nicaragua? Roberto Clemente as an Adopted Son