He braved ocean, sharks to search for Clemente

Manny Sanguillén looks back on a loving friendship and a tragic death

April 17th, 2020

On Jan. 4, 1973, mourners piled into Iglesia San Fernando in Carolina, Puerto Rico, for a memorial service in honor of Roberto Clemente. The 38-year-old All-Star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates had perished in a plane crash four days earlier, upending New Year’s festivities across the island. Clemente died attempting to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, a fate that would cement his legacy as a selfless humanitarian.

After the accident, a contingent of Pirates players and executives, including pitcher Steve Blass and general manager Joe Brown, traveled to Clemente’s hometown to offer their support to Clemente’s family, which included his widow, Vera, and the couple’s three young sons.

Blass delivered the eulogy at Clemente’s memorial service. As his words filled the church, someone was notably missing from the crowd.

Pittsburgh catcher Manny Sanguillén had been in Puerto Rico for several weeks, playing winter ball with the San Juan Senators, a team once managed by Clemente, a close friend and mentor. When an earthquake ripped through the Nicaraguan capital of Managua on Dec. 23, 1972, Sanguillén had helped Clemente raise money for relief efforts.

On New Year’s Eve, Sanguillén had a game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in the Puerto Rican capital. He and Clemente had discussed meeting up later that day, before the latter left to deliver supplies to Nicaragua, but they missed each other.

Sanguillén, then 28, went to a party that night. He recalls being late. Luckily, a trusted source had given him a piece of advice for such situations.

“Clemente once told me, ‘Sangy, remember, when you get to a party and people are talking, don’t start talking right away because they’re going to think you’re stupid,’” Sanguillén said in Spanish. “‘Sit down somewhere, figure out what they are talking about and then you can join the conversation.’”

It was at that gathering that Sanguillén first heard of an aircraft going down in the area.

Hours later, Sanguillén was back at his condo, asleep, when a knock on the door roused him. It was Luis Mayoral, a local journalist and a friend of Clemente’s, bearing unthinkable news: Clemente’s plane had crashed.

The search

Sanguillén, 76, is devout man with a penchant for quoting the Bible. But upon hearing that his friend had been in a plane accident, his grief led him not to church, but to the region of Piñones on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast -- the area closest to where the DC-7 cargo plane Clemente had chartered had fallen into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff.

At some point, Sanguillén encountered a search party that was going out to look for the victims. Although he was warned that the ocean was rough, he wanted in. Sanguillén, who had never gone diving before, was soon in the water, with an oxygen tank strapped to his back, looking for any sign of Clemente. He would later tell Mayoral that he spotted at least one shark.

“It was so genuine, his reaction,” recalled Blass. “We’re at the memorial, and he’s down at the beach, still not being able to tear himself away from the proximity, as close as he could get to where the tragedy happened.”

Sanguillén says he had already been diving when he learned that Brown didn’t want him participating in the search. But citing his familiarity with the ocean from his childhood on the eastern shores of Panamá, Sanguillén insisted that he wasn’t afraid.

“That came from my heart,” said Sanguillén.

The introduction

Manuel de Jesús Sanguillén introduced himself to Roberto Clemente in a Pittsburgh airport. They were in town for a team convention and had taken the same connecting flight from Miami. Sanguillén, who was on the Pirates’ 40-man roster at the time but had yet to play a single game in the Majors, had purchased a first-class ticket. Clemente, the perennial All-Star, had traveled in coach.

Clemente offered Sanguillén a ride to their hotel. When they got there, they were assigned to the same room. Horrified to think that he was infringing on Clemente’s space, Sanguillén asked to be switched.

“Who doesn’t want to be roommates with Roberto Clemente?” Sanguillén said with a laugh.

Clemente, on the other hand, had emerged as a champion of Latino players and was eager to take Sanguillén under his wing. For the return trip, he helped his new mentee exchange his first-class ticket for a cheaper seat. The gesture meant a lot to Sanguillén, who was constantly trying to save up money for his family in Panamá.

The friendship blossomed from there.

During Spring Training in Fort Myers, Fla., Clemente would discourage Sanguillén from going with their teammates to the racetrack, inviting him instead to partake in one of his favorite hobbies: making ceramics. Sanguillén chuckles at the memory of sitting around after games, molding clay with Clemente.

“I told him, ‘Clemente, thank you for this blessing, because if I don’t make it in baseball, I can make a business out of this,” Sanguillén said.

A growing bond

Sanguillén did make it in baseball. And once he arrived in the Major Leagues in 1967, his friendship with Clemente translated onto the field.

Blass watched their bond grow.

“It was good to watch Clemente looking after him and guiding him along, and Manny just embracing that friendship/mentor relationship,” says Blass, 77. “It was very evident. It was completely transparent. I think they both cared about each other. Clemente was very proud to be helping him and Manny was just soaking it in. It meant so much to both parties.”

In their six seasons as teammates in Pittsburgh, Sanguillén and Clemente had plenty of memorable moments. Sanguillén was behind the plate at Shea Stadium on Sept. 20, 1969, when Clemente made a spectacular catch in right field in the sixth inning to preserve Bob Moose’s no-hitter against the Mets.

“When I saw that he caught it, because the ball was almost out of the park and he came up with the ball in his [glove], I thought, ‘We’re going to have the no-hitter,’” Sanguillén says.

Clemente and Sanguillén were All-Star teammates twice, in 1971 and '72. On Sept. 1, 1971, the Pirates fielded the first all-black lineup in Major League history, a starting nine that included Sanguillén and Clemente.

Later that year, Sanguillén became the first Latino catcher to start a Game 7 of the World Series -- a game that Blass started and that the Pirates won. Sanguillén notes that it was Clemente, who dreamed of seeing Major League rosters bursting with Latino talent, who pointed out that he was making history.

Added Blass, “I think the fact that Manny was talented, too, meant a lot of Clemente. It wasn’t just taking care of a young Latino kid just because he was Latino. I think Clemente recognized his abilities. I think that was part of the foundation, also.”

After Clemente’s death, the Pirates tried moving Sanguillén to right field. The experiment failed miserably, and it didn’t take long for the team to put him back behind the plate.

“I don’t think he ever liked that idea, for so many reasons,” said Blass. “That was Clemente’s position. Manny had a sense of what his position was. He was an All-Star catcher, a very talented catcher. So the position itself, what an abrupt thing. He never liked that idea. He never embraced it.”

Sanguillén wound up playing 13 seasons in the Major Leagues, all but one of which he spent with the Pirates. In that time, he hit .296, amassed 1,500 hits, drove in 585 runs, won two World Series and made three All-Star Games. To this day, he credits Clemente with giving him the courage he needed to succeed on the diamond.

“God sent [Clemente] so people would realize that Latinos were talented,” said Sanguillén.

Returning to the scene

In the weeks after Clemente’s accident, Sanguillén returned several times to the Piñones shoreline. He had heard that the bodies of drowning victims sometimes float to the surface. But of the five people who perished in the New Year’s Eve plane crash, only the remains of the pilot were recovered.

“I [kept going back] to see if the ocean had brought him back,” said Sanguillén.

Blass recalls his former batterymate being “crushed” by the loss of Clemente.

“That was his man, that was his friend, that was teammate, that was his hero,” said Blass. “He was inconsolable.”

While Sanguillén’s efforts were futile, his gesture remains meaningful more than 47 years later.

With no gravesite to visit, every year, the Clemente family gathers on Dec. 31 to cast flowers into the ocean at Piñones. Luis Clemente, the second of Roberto’s three sons, who was 6 when he lost his father, has come to know the site well.

“The waters are rough,” says Luis Clemente, 53, in Spanish. “It’s not a beach where you walk on the sand and get to the water. What you have are rocks that are inaccessible.”

Luis Clemente notes that he and his brothers regard Sanguillén as an uncle. And with time, as he’s learned about the area where his father spent his last moments, he’s gained perspective on the risk Sanguillén took when he dove into the ocean in a frantic attempt to recover his body.

“There are no words to describe the appreciation, the gratitude of knowing that [my father’s] friendship meant so much to someone that he put his own life second,” said Luis Clemente. “He wanted to find Dad with no regard for anything else. Nothing else was more important to him. That’s priceless."