My first memory is of my father carrying a hammer into our bedrooms and smashing open our piggy banks on the night Roberto died.
I couldn’t have known what was happening. I didn’t know about the sputtering airplane, carrying one Major League superstar and too many supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. But I might have understood what Roberto meant to my dad.
Three years earlier, as my father arrived for his first day on the job with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had been intercepted by Dick Stockton in the parking lot of McKechnie Field, the Bucs’ spring training home in Bradenton, Florida. Stockton is a first-tier play-by-play announcer now, but in 1970 he was a Pittsburgh television sports anchor, and he asked if Dad was the team’s new public relations director. When my father said he was, Stockton said he would like an interview with Roberto Clemente. My father explained he’d only been on the job a few minutes, and that he hadn’t even met Clemente yet. Nevertheless, he would see what he could do.
My dad has Alzheimer’s now so I can’t ask him what happened next, but when his memories were still present he took out a yellow legal pad and wrote down many of his baseball stories. In these pages he describes his first encounter with Roberto. Dad introduced himself as the new PR guy, and in the next breath asked if Clemente would do an interview with the sports director from KDKA-TV.
Roberto reacted with a three or four minute outburst, combining English and Spanish, to let me know exactly how he felt about Stockton. Apparently he and Dick had had a falling-out some time ago over something Stockton had said on the air.
Then Roberto paused, regained his composure, and looked at me with a little smile. “Would it help you if I did the interview?” he asked.
“Well, it’s my first day on the job and I’m trying to get off on the right foot,” I said. “Yes, it would help me if you would talk to him.”
Clemente nodded and said, “Ok. For you I will do it, my friend.” He finished dressing, walked out on the field, and gave an interview to Dick Stockton for the first time in years.
That night in my bedroom, early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 1973, I don’t think my dad had words for what he was feeling. He’d just finished a call with Joe Brown, the Pirates’ general manager. In his grief, Joe didn’t hang up the phone on his end, which, in the context of early seventies telecommunications, meant our home phone was disconnected. So Dad poured change from his kids’ banks into an old sock that he would carry, along with his little green address book, a mile through the cold and snow to a parking lot pay phone outside a general store, and from there he would tell the world that his friend Roberto was dead.