PITTSBURGH -- It was Sept. 18 in Pittsburgh, Roberto Clemente Day in his adopted city, and Vera Clemente was carrying on her family’s legacy. Surrounded by Pirates players and coaches, she led a charitable trip to the Allegheny Immediate Unit Latino Family Center. The group served lunch inside and played baseball outside, and Vera visited with children and their families.
To the end, Vera was the finest example of her Hall of Fame husband’s famous words: “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.”
Vera Clemente wasted none of the time she was given. She passed away on Saturday, at the age of 78, after being hospitalized in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Pirates announced on Nov. 1 that she was “in delicate health” and had been hospitalized, sharing the family’s request for privacy.
“All of us at Major League Baseball are saddened by the passing of Vera Clemente, the wife of legendary Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement released by MLB. "As a Goodwill Ambassador for MLB, Vera impacted countless children and extended her family’s humanitarian legacy of helping those in need. With grace and strength, she led the way in welcoming players to the fraternity of Roberto Clemente Award winners, the single most prestigious off-the-field honor in our game.
“Vera’s baseball family will miss her greatly. We send our deepest condolences to Roberto Jr., Luis, Enrique, the entire Clemente family, the fans of Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, and her many admirers across our game.”
Vera served as chairwoman of the Roberto Clemente Foundation and gracefully represented the Pirates and Major League Baseball as a Goodwill Ambassador. She is survived by three sons: Roberto Jr., Luis Roberto and Roberto Enrique. She actively extended her late husband’s philanthropic legacy long after Clemente’s tragic death on Dec. 31, 1972.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Vera Clemente, the widow of the great Roberto Clemente and a cherished member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Major League Baseball family," Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting said in a statement released by the club.
“Vera epitomized grace, dignity and strength in the wake of heartbreaking tragedy and loss. Following Roberto’s passing, Vera raised their three sons into outstanding men, while also working tirelessly to ensure her and her husband’s shared vision of compassion, service and love of others lived on forever.
“Vera was an amazing ambassador for the Pirates organization, our city, the game of baseball and their beloved Puerto Rico. It is with very heavy hearts that we send our condolences to Roberto Jr., Luis, Enrique and the entire Clemente family. May they find comfort in knowing that Vera and Roberto are together once again.”
Every year, Vera was part of the panel that chose a winner for the award named after her husband, an honor given since 1973 to the player who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” Every year she could, she traveled to the World Series to present the award herself.
And whenever possible, Vera gave back to those in need. Amid her family’s efforts to aid Puerto Rico following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, Vera flew to Houston during the 2017 World Series, presented the Clemente Award to the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo and took part in a volunteer packaging event at the Houston Food Bank to help families still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
Clint Hurdle, the former Pirates manager, beamed when he spoke about “the look in Vera’s eyes” as she made her way around the Latino Family Center, speaking to toddlers and holding babies during the Pirates’ service there.
Two years after Clemente’s death, Vera opened and oversaw the “Sports City” – Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente – that he dreamed of creating in Carolina, Puerto Rico. The facility helped provide the Majors with another generation of Puerto Rican stars, including the Alomar brothers and Ivan Rodriguez.
“When I think of the Clemente family, the first word that comes to mind is goodness,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “Roberto did it in life and his family, led by Doña Vera, have maintained their legacy -- one that we feel today, in some way or another, in our daily lives.”
Carlos Beltrán was one of many inspired by Clemente, the first Puerto Rican inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and what he accomplished both as a baseball player and as a humanitarian. Beltrán grew up idolizing the proud but humble Clemente, so one day in the winter of 2012, he sought out the person who knew him best: Vera. Beltrán drove to the Clementes’ home in Puerto Rico and spent hours asking Vera about her husband and their life together.
She was widely respected in Puerto Rico and throughout the baseball world for her compassionate nature, her giving spirit and her dedication to continuing the philanthropic legacy Clemente left behind.
Vera met her future husband in a drugstore in Puerto Rico after the 1963 season, and they were married on Nov. 14, 1964. Together they started a family that grew together from their native Puerto Rico to southwestern Pennsylvania. Clemente formed a permanent bond with the city of Pittsburgh, and Vera ensured that it would never break. Today, the bridge that leads from downtown Pittsburgh to the Pirates’ ballpark on the north shore of the Allegheny River is named for Clemente.
Vera was by Clemente’s side when he felt he was misunderstood as one of the Majors’ first Latin American stars, then when he rose to stardom and won the World Series MVP in 1971. But only eight years after their wedding, Clemente – the Hall of Famer, two-time World Series champion and 15-time All-Star – died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve while setting out from Puerto Rico to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was 38.
In the days after his tragic passing, while Manny Sanguillen swam through shark-infested waters in search of his friend and teammate, Vera stood by the shore hoping for a miracle. Every year on the anniversary of his tragic death, the Clemente family gathers in Loíza, Puerto Rico, where the crash occurred. Led by Vera, they throw flowers into the Atlantic Ocean and say a prayer.
Today, Roberto and Vera Clemente are together again. And what a difference they made.
Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.