The Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972, 45 years ago this Sunday. The humanitarian all-star had been on his way to deliver supplies to survivors of the great earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua in which thousands of people perished and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
Clemente was one of the top players at a time when the MLB boasted Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Aaron; the Pirates right fielder broke the barrier for Latinos in professional ball. After his death, at age 38, the two-time World Series champion and Major League Baseball MVP would become the first Latin American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When San Juan’s new coliseum was inaugurated in January 1973, it bore the name of the Puerto Rican hero. One month later, the Fania All Stars, at the top of their game, inaugurated the arena with a concert for 11,000 people. Music has since been a vehicle for tributes to the memory of Clemente, and a carrier of the pride that Puerto Ricans hold in his name.
Soon after his death, Puerto Rican country singer Ramito released his album “Ramito Canta a Clemente – la Tragedia de Nicaragua” (“Ramito Sings to Clemente- The Tragedy of Nicaragua”). Salsa stars Ismael Miranda and Andy Montañez are among the artists who have since recorded tributes to the Latino baseball icon. In 2014, Calle 13’s Residente wore a Clemente jersey (number 21) in the video for the track “Adentro” (In which Willie Mays actually appears).
For decades, the Coliseo Roberto Clemente was San Juan’s major music venue, hosting performances by everyone from Bon Jovi to Alanis Morrissette to Sting to Meatloaf to Motley Crue, and of course a continuous flow of Puerto Rican salsa greats and Latin tropical and pop stars. In recent years, new concert venues had taken the older arena out of the main spotlight.
Then came Hurricane Maria, when the Coliseo Roberto Clemente served as a public shelter, and then, in the aftermath, as command center for coordinating relief efforts, where San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz made her heroic “we are dying and you are killing us” speech, aimed at the President Trump and his administration. It’s easy to picture the great baseball player using his legendary arm to push palettes stacked with water bottles and hauling boxes of donated food and supplies.
Although it’s been over four decades since his departure, the strength of Clemente’s oft-quoted words endures, particularly as we reflect upon the coming of a new year: “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
Listen and watch musicians’ tributes to Roberto Clemente: