Fifty years ago, Carolina, Puerto Rico, was the site of tragedy. On Dec. 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente lost his life in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission. He was en route to deliver aid in Nicaragua after an earthquake, when his plane went down just offshore from the Isla Verde International Airport (now the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport).
This year, Clemente’s life and legacy were honored in a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the accident 50 years to the day since his death, completing a year of touching tributes to “The Great One."
Many loved ones and local luminaries were on the ceremony program. Julia M. Nazario, the mayor of nearby Loíza, gave opening remarks, and several of Clemente’s family members spoke. The Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña,” was performed by a Clemente family friend. Representatives from Wreaths Across America and Crowley -- who sponsored two other ceremonies honoring Clemente earlier in December -- were also present.
For Luis Clemente -- the second of Roberto Clemente’s three sons -- and his family, this wreath-laying ceremony was far from the first time they have stepped foot on these somber grounds. They have been visiting the site every year since the accident to pay respects. According to Luis, for the first several years after his father’s death, thousands of fans joined them at the site in Carolina. This number dwindled over the years to eventually consist of just the Clemente family.
However, that may be changing soon. The crash site was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in August 2022, and there are plans to build an official memorial at the accident site to Roberto Clemente and the four others who perished in the plane crash. This memorial won’t open until sometime in 2023 at the earliest with many details still to work out, including design, security, how to collect offerings and preparing for potentially large crowds.
“We want to open up that area for the millions of fans, to have a place for them to be able to pay their respects,” Luis Clemente said in a phone interview with MLB.com. “[Roberto Clemente is] not in a cemetery [because his body was never recovered], so this place will be that place where people can officially and formally pay their respects. That's what we want to do for all the people that have shown their love.”
In addition to the commemorative wreath laying on the 31st, many other events honoring Roberto Clemente took place that weekend, including the following:
• A celebration at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pa.
• A memorial mass in Carolina
• An open house at the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh
• The dedication of a new Roberto Clemente playground at Roberto Clemente Park in Paterson, N.J.
• An exhibit and ceremony at a YMCA in the Bronx, N.Y.
• A mass in Newark, N.J., that (fittingly) had an estimated 3,000 attendees
Earlier in the month on Dec. 12, there was a wreath-laying ceremony outside the Roberto Clemente Complex in Carolina in front of a large bronze cenotaph dedicated to Clemente, which stretches over 30 feet long and depicts major events in his life. Such a tribute is normally reserved for military heroes, but Clemente’s humanitarian work combined with his military service -- he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a reserve infantryman from 1958-64 -- inspired the opening of this display in 1999.
Luis Clemente has frequently spoken about Roberto over the years, but at this ceremony, in front of the cenotaph right before the 50th anniversary of his father’s death, there was an extra element of wonder.
“I received a picture of when I was speaking at the podium. … I saw this light, this aura, around my head,” Clemente said. “That day, I cannot explain what I was feeling as I was speaking. But everyone told me that the message, words, everything that I said, ‘I've never ever heard you speak that way. But you did that day.’”
Clemente added that shortly before the Dec. 12 ceremony, his associate Victor Rivera -- a member of the Roberto Clemente Foundation board of directors -- dreamt that Luis and others in town for the ceremony were in the middle of a volunteer project and had similar auras around their heads, as if Roberto Clemente’s spirit was watching over all of them.
“So the dream [Rivera] had, it was like everyone that was there with us was glowing, and [then] they sent me this picture [of me with the aura],” Luis Clemente said. “I didn't connect his dream to this, but I was amazed by the picture. I call [him back] and I say, ‘Look at the picture you sent me.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God, remember the dream I told you?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
After the ceremony on the 12th, Luis and his family volunteered at another event on Dec. 17 for National Wreaths Across America Day, during which military veterans laid to rest at the Puerto Rico National Cemetery had wreaths laid across their graves.
These December events rounded out a year of tributes to Roberto Clemente across the baseball world. Major League Baseball celebrated the 21st annual Roberto Clemente Day on Sept. 15, which included a ceremony before the Pirates-Mets game at Citi Field (with more than a dozen former Roberto Clemente Award winners in attendance), players across the league wearing No. 21 and the Rays -- purely by coincidence -- fielding the first all-Latino lineup in MLB history.
Additionally, the Roberto Clemente Award, considered MLB’s most prestigious off-field honor, was given to Justin Turner. The award has been given out annually since 1971, was named for Clemente in ‘73 and honors players who contribute in significant, meaningful ways to their community, as Clemente did throughout his life. The Clemente family has always been actively involved in selecting the winner. That included Vera Clemente, Roberto’s wife, until her passing in 2019. Mrs. Clemente served as the chairwoman of the Roberto Clemente Foundation and was a goodwill ambassador for MLB.
Luis Clemente was present at many of the December ceremonies and several of MLB’s commemorative events in 2022. His life’s work is to “continue the Clemente mission” as authentically as possible. On Dec. 31 at the accident site, as is tradition when talking about his father, Luis spoke not from notecards, but straight from the heart.
“To be a Clemente, you need to understand the greatness of it, but you have to handle it with a great amount of humbleness,” he said. “Day in and day out, all that [I do] revolves around that. So for me it’s a way of living. … Make sure that anything you touch, you touch in a positive way. That's what we want to do.”