In a year where we’ve seen so much loss of life, love and prosperity, it was a poignant but nonetheless fitting coda to lose the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pele, this earlier this week. Throughout not only the soccer-loving world, but in the world in general, especially among those who spoke Portuguese or Spanish, his loss was especially significant. Among younger soccer lovers who never knew his greatness beyond old films from his most successful days during his run of three World Cups in twelve years for his native Brazil, they revered him as “the Greatest”, much like boxing fans idolized Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis or baseball fans idolized Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron.
But among Latin baseball fans, their greatest was Roberto Clemente. And 50 years ago today, he perished while on a New Year’s Eve rescue mission en route to Nicaragua. 38 years of age, and having ended his 18th regular season with hit number 3000, doing so in epic fashion and, shockingly even for the era, only seen on local New York television, watched live by scant few but, as usual, yours truly.
As the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Thomas Lawrence recalled:
On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente and the defending World Champion Pirates were taking on Yogi Berra’s Mets at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Clemente, a proud son of Puerto Rico, was hitting an impressive .311 heading into the season finale against New York.
Batting third against Mets’ starter Jon Matlack, the eventual National League Rookie of the Year, Clemente looked to push his hit total of 2,999 into an historic group. At the time, only 10 other players had joined the 3,000-hit club, and only three – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial – had done so in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Clemente, besides being a world-renowned humanitarian, now had a chance to be the first Latin American ballplayer to reach 3,000 hits.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Clemente was leading off against Matlack after a strikeout in his first at-bat. Clemente promptly roped a double to the Three Rivers outfield – his 3,000th and last regular-season hit of his exceptional career.
And save for a disappointing elimination in the NLCS against Cincinnati, where Clemente added only four hits in five games, that magic number is frozen in immortality.
But, more importantly, so is the man. As he was eulogized, I learned exactly how charitable Clemente was in his lifetime, especially in his native Puerto Rico. How many millions of dollars and thousands of hours of sweat equity he threw in to support and advance youth baseball.
And it helped make me appreciate exactly how similarly Pele was revered and acknowledged in Brazil and, indeed, all throughout South America, So when he came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in 1975 in the still-fledgling North American Soccer League, even for a team that was at best the tenth most prominent professional franchise in the metropolitan area, playing at the time at a rickety old bandbox called Downing Stadium, which sat on a depressed piece of land hiding under the Triborough Bridge called Randalls Island, it was a big deal.
You bet I watched his first game, actually shown live on network television. You bet I watched as the Cosmos rose in stature and prominence as the NASL expanded. You bet I cheered like mad when he, joined by other veteran international superstars like Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and others, not to mession a Nassau County local with an impressive “Jew-Fro” named Shep Messing, they filled the spanking new Giants Stadium to capacity and won the 1977 “Soccer Bowl”, the league’s coyly named top honor, at the same time that the Yankees took back their mantle (pun intended) as baseball’s best.
And as I saw so many patches of dirt and brown grass begin to be populated more by soccer players than those who would play baseball in parks in my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, I truly realized how much one man could impact a community and a passion.
So, yep, I really get exactly how much he’ll be missed. Thankfully, he had a much longer life to impact far more. Clemente’s influence lives on largely through his family and his legacy. But, if nothing else, he gave me an understanding on how the worth of an athlete goes far beyond what he or she does in competition.
I personally was more impacted by the death of Vin Scully this year, and remembered Bill Russell’s playing career with greater detail when he passed. Franco Harris’ death last week also brought back memories of that impactful year of a half-century ago, with his Immaculate Reception making me a Steelers fan.
But there’s no question that, even among them, Pele was a much bigger presence, And one helluva human being.
Rest In Power, Black Pearl. And Descanse En Paz to all those who didn’t make it to 2023.
May their memories inspire us all to do better.
POSTSCRIPT: We’re adding the following link because, well, you’ll see the reasons if you click on it. If you like what you’ve read, and perhaps are inclined to do more catch up, I’d greatly appreciate your consideration of taking the requested action.