Over the years, I have written similar articles about my boyhood hero, legendary Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates, for various media outlets, including one in Pittsburgh. And I don’t mind sharing my Clemente memories from time to time.
This week — Tuesday, August 18 to be exact — marked Clemente’s 81st birthday. As you may remember, the baseball hall-of-famer was tragically killed in a 1972 cargo plane crash on New Year’s Eve on a mission of mercy. He was only 38 at the time.
Even though Clemente has touched many folks’ lives, he sure has touched mine in a big, meaningful way when I was a child growing up in Kentucky.
I was one lucky kid who got to know him personally after our chance meeting at a very nice downtown hotel — now called Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza — where the team stayed in Cincy.
At first, I’m sure he felt sorry for me because I couldn’t hear very well. There are many warm memories of him and his friendly teammates like two-time all-star pitcher Bob Veale, Jose Pagan, Matty Alou and Bruce Dal Canton (who was a teacher during the offseason).
And I’ve been mentioned very briefly in a couple of old Clemente biographies which were published during the 1970s.
Here are some of my favorite memories, in no particular order:
— Free tickets from Clemente for the Pirates-Reds games at the old (but charming) Crosley Field. The seats were usually behind the home plate. Wow!
— Giving me his autographed personal bat in the stands (through a security guard) during a Pirates-Reds game. After receiving his Louisville Slugger bat, I glanced toward the dugout and Clemente waved at me. He wanted to make sure that I had the bat. I sure didn’t know what to think.
— A breakfast with Clemente in Atlanta — just the two of us. A good dresser, Clemente wore a sports coat and a tie. He later asked my mom why I didn’t drink milk, worrying about my health. He also didn’t smoke or drink. He was a very good role model for me.
— Inviting me and my dad to his hotel room, where I got an autographed photo.
— Meeting his wife, Vera, during the National League playoffs in Cincy. I later told him he had the prettiest wife on the team. He just grinned.
— A trip to the Pirate dugout at Crosley Field with Pirate radio and TV broadcaster Nellie King (who worked with legendary announcer Bob Prince). We later had a great visit with King at a nursing home in Pittsburgh in 2009 before he passed away a year later at the age of 82.
— An invitation from Clemente to visit him and his family at his Puerto Rico home in the winter. My parents and I didn’t go because of school. Sadly, this is one of my regrets.
— Hitting two home runs at Crosley Field in a rain-soaked 1968 game which ended in an 8-8 tie. Because of the rain, many fans had already left or sought cover. But with an umbrella I remained alone in my red seat, which was fairly close to the Pirate dugout. (My parents didn’t want to get wet and they found empty seats under the deck.) When Clemente slowly walked to the home plate, I yelled, “Clemente, hit a home run!” He turned around and acknowledged me. I guess I was kind of easy to spot because I was wearing a Pirate uniform (with his No. 21 on it) and there weren’t too many people around because of the rain. And guess what? He did blast a homer over the left field wall. Later, when the Pirate outfielder came to bat again, I clapped my hands and screamed, “Clemente, hit another home run!” He turned and saw me again. And, yes, he did blast another home run. Boy, I was in heaven! Wow!
Can you imagine how I felt!
Needless to say, I sure had great times with those old Pirates. I was one fortunate kid with great baseball memories and friendships.
For that, I’m very thankful.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]