Vera and Roberto: Everlasting love, legacies
The final months of Vera Clemente’s life were filled with beautiful images and vivid dreams.
It felt like heaven.
“I remember telling Mom that the dreams sound amazing and what you are describing is what we hope for Roberto Clemente Sports City in the future -- but the only problem is that you are in the car with Dad,” said Luis Clemente, the couple’s middle son. “He’s picking you up and taking you with him. That’s the part that worries me. She would just smile and tell me not to worry because as long as she was with Dad that everything is perfect.”
[Note: A version of this story originally ran on MLB.com in September 2020.]
The annual Roberto Clemente Day, which was established by Major League Baseball to pay tribute to the Hall of Famer’s legacy as a humanitarian and player, is Sept. 15. In 2020, the family chose to also honor the late matriarch of the Clemente family, Vera, who passed away on Nov. 16, 2019, at the age of 78.
“It’s very emotional to have Clemente Day without her,” Luis said. “You can’t tell the story of Roberto without Vera. She deserves the recognition and [to have] her legacy honored the same as Dad’s.”
Vera Cristina Zabala was born March 6, 1941, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, to Flor Manuel Zabala and Marcia Serrano. The third of four children, Vera spent most of her adolescence volunteering in the community and participating in leadership programs through her school. She taught religion classes and emphasized being a good citizen. She wanted to make the world a better place.
Her volunteer work and dedication to the community were a harbinger of the type of life she would lead.
“There was nothing that would make Mom happier than to impact young lives,” Luis said. “It was always from the heart. Sometimes, I would ask why she would go so far for people. Why would she sacrifice all of her time and energy and resources to help others? She’d say it’s because it was her mission. That’s just who she was.”
Roberto, a 15-time All-Star, shined on the field and was outspoken about injustices off of it. Behind the scenes, Vera traveled across the globe in support of educational issues, civil rights and social causes. They planned on helping the world together, but those plans changed when Roberto died in a plane crash 49 years ago Friday, on Dec. 31, 1972, off the coast of Puerto Rico. He was on his way to deliver supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua.
There was nothing that would make Mom happier than to impact young lives. It was always from the heart.Luis Clemente
Vera pressed on alone. She was the driving force behind the creation of The Roberto Clemente Sports City complex and The Roberto Clemente Foundation, along with many other initiatives in the family name. She was the link between the past and the present, the original Clemente bridge.
“Dad’s light was so bright, he would have overshadowed anyone,” Luis said. “But she was extraordinary in her own right. She was very special, and people recognized that.”
Vera was presented the Congressional Gold Medal by President Richard Nixon in Roberto’s memory in 1973. Thirty years later, she accepted the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush at the White House. In between and in the years that followed, Vera was a member on the board of directors of numerous charitable organizations, schools, hospitals and leagues. In 1998, she was named National League captain for the All-Star Game in Colorado.
“Mom was a go-getter. Everyone liked her, and she did things with tenacity, but with lots of love,” Enrique Clemente, the couple’s youngest son, told MLB.com in an email interview. “Her accomplishments make me proud because she always gave the extra mile in all that she did. Actually, that’s one of her favorite phrases: ‘You must give the extra mile.’”
In 2007, Vera was awarded The Beacon of Hope by Major League Baseball during the inaugural Civil Rights Game. Two years later, she was named a Goodwill Ambassador by MLB.
She was known for attending the annual presentation of the Roberto Clemente Award during the World Series -- and she lit up the ballroom with her wide smile. The prestigious award, which recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team, was named in Roberto’s honor in 1973.
In 2019, Vera was too ill to travel to Nationals Park during the World Series to present the award to Cleveland pitcher Carlos Carrasco. She died three weeks later in a San Juan hospital due to complications from cancer.
“Puerto Ricans, including myself, see Vera Clemente as an extension of Roberto,” said former big leaguer Carlos Delgado, who won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2006. “She carried on his legacy and created her own. They are both missed. When you see Roberto Jr. and Luis handing out his award and her not there, you will feel the impact and understand that something is missing.”
It was love at first glance.
Vera was walking from her job at the bank to a nearby drugstore when she first spotted Roberto out of the corner of her eye. He was walking in the same direction.
It was the fall of 1963. Roberto, who was already a big league star in Pittsburgh and a World Series champion, saw her, too, and made a beeline to the drugstore. He was sitting in the lobby pretending to read the newspaper when she walked in. He feigned surprise at her arrival.
“Dad told Mom that he was friends with the owner of the drugstore, and he could help her with anything she wanted,” Luis said. “Dad asked her name, who she was related to and a bunch of questions right there, and Mom was just silent. She said her name was Vera, but that’s about it. She knew who he was, but Mom was really reserved.”
Roberto wanted to know everything about the woman he had just met, so he peppered the store owner with questions once she walked out the door.
“That’s Vera Cristina Zabala and her parents are very strict,” the store owner said. “Nobody ever sees her, Roberto. She goes to work. She goes to lunch sometimes and she goes straight home. Are you sure you know what you are doing?”
Roberto was never more certain of anything in his life.
That evening, he told his parents that he had met the woman he was going to marry. He had only heard her name a couple of times, and he didn’t know much about her other than she lived down the street from one of his aunts. But she was the one.
Finding the love of his life was easy. The hard part for Roberto was convincing Vera’s father, Flor Manuel, to let her date him. When Vera finally agreed to go out with him, Roberto had his cousin drop him off at Vera’s house because he wasn’t sure how Vera’s father would receive him. He didn’t want Flor Manuel to know what kind of car he drove if the meeting went sideways.
For the next hour, Roberto charmed his future father-in-law. He smiled and joked. Vera’s father remained stone-faced. Roberto then asked Flor Manuel for permission to date his daughter.
“As the story goes, my grandfather says, ‘Listen, let's cut to the chase here,” Luis said. “‘I don't know what you're doing here. You're famous. You got money. You can go anywhere and have whichever woman you want. I don't know why you're in my house.’”
Roberto’s response was honest. It became legendary in the Clemente household.
“Yes, I’m sort of famous like you say, and yes, I'm making good money and everything,” Roberto answered. “But the woman I love lives here. That’s why I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Impressed with the comeback, Flor Manuel laid the ground rules for dating his daughter. The new couple could see each other, but only during certain hours and only on certain days. If Flor Manuel caught them together outside of those parameters, she would be prohibited from seeing him. The men agreed, shook hands and began to part ways. But one small problem remained: Roberto’s car was parked at his house a few miles away, and his cousin never came back to get him.
Yes, I’m sort of famous like you say, and yes, I'm making good money and everything. But the woman I love lives here. That’s why I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.Roberto Clemente
Roberto certainly wasn’t going to walk home after convincing Vera’s father how fit he was as a suitor and potential husband. Running home was out of the question, too. That would be worse. In the end, Flor Manuel reluctantly gave Roberto a ride home with Vera seated next to her father in the front seat. Roberto sat in the back, stealing glances through the rearview mirror.
“I can just imagine Dad in the backseat smiling and doing little fist pumps,” Luis said. “He knew that day that his life just got a whole lot better.”
About a year later, on Nov. 14, 1964, the couple was married. Roberto Clemente Jr. was born the next year and Luis Roberto Clemente followed in 1966. Roberto Enrique Clemente arrived in the summer of 1969.
“They were just the perfect match,” Luis said. “Many times, and without speaking, they already knew what the other was thinking. He would start sentences, and she would finish them. They’d laugh because they knew exactly what the other one was thinking. They had the same mind and heart. They had so much love for each other and so much love for people. The people loved them, too.”
The Clemente family home sits on a hill outside of San Juan in a Rio Piedras neighborhood. You can see the Atlantic Ocean and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in the horizon from the back porch. In the backyard, there’s a design of a giant white glove with a white bat and ball and Roberto’s No. 21 in stone that’s visible for miles.
Most tourists come by taxi or van to see the house. Some travel on tour buses. If the visitors were lucky -- which they often were -- they’d catch a glimpse of Vera picking up the mail or getting into her car. She wouldn’t just wave or take photos with the fans, she’d invite them in for coffee.
“I’ve met people from all over the world in different places and they would say it was nice to meet me, but then they say they already met Mom,” Roberto Clemente Jr. said. “And sure enough, they would pull out photos of the inside of my house with my mother. She just had this sweetness about her that made you feel like you have known her forever. She’d just engulf you with warmness and anybody who met her felt that.”
Vera’s accomplishments set her apart. Her kindness and faith defined her. She raised her three boys mostly alone. She taught them right from wrong and that love should always come first. Roberto was with them in spirit. For years, she kept his clothes neatly folded in the dresser and his shirts hanging in the closet. The boys watched old footage of their father’s television interviews to glean lessons from his words.
She’d just engulf you with warmness and anybody who met her felt that.Roberto Clemente Jr.
“She had faith that one day in the future, her and Dad would be together again, and that’s how she lived,” Luis said. “She would say Dad’s death certificate only said ‘Presumption of Death’ because they searched and searched and never found him. So, I think that had everything to do with how she felt about his passing. He was always with her, and she raised us to understand his presence in the world.”
Each son coped with the death of their legendary father in a different way. Luis dove headfirst into the family’s charitable efforts and found a way to compartmentalize the loss so he could operate in a world where his father’s name permeated every facet of life in Puerto Rico. Enrique “Ricky” stopped flying for 21 years and gave up baseball because he didn’t want to get on a plane. The introvert of the family, Enrique still shuns the spotlight and interviews in person or by phone. Roberto Jr. said he acted out at times while in search of a father figure. He longed for a friend who could relate to his experience and found one in John F. Kennedy Jr., who also tragically died in a plane crash in 1999. Roberto Jr., who played Minor League Baseball and broadcast games in Spanish, later found salvation in religion and ministry.
All three brothers are involved with carrying on their parents’ work.
“When most people lose a family member, you cry and you really miss that person, but little by little, you start recuperating and understanding the process,” Luis said. “In our case, you constantly hear his name on the radio or television. You see a street in any number of cities in his name, so the grieving process is a little different. You have to internalize it differently. We are still working through the loss of our parents. Mom was able to do it all those years because of her love for Dad and her belief in him.”
Vera’s final days were spent surrounded by family in a modest hospital room in San Juan. She died two days after what would have been her and Roberto’s 55th wedding anniversary.
Her memorial service was held at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, near the busy plaza and just across the lush grass and sidewalks of Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where Roberto used to play.
The family described the timing of her passing as a “final act of grace.”
“The year 2020 would have really hurt her,” Roberto Jr. said. “The pain of seeing what this year has brought to society and the people of Puerto Rico with the virus, the earthquakes and the overall social climate would have devastated her. But we feel good knowing that she planted seeds of love and compassion in people. Those people will pay forward her goodwill and serve as a reminder of who we need to be for humanity.”