Simply, Roberto Clemente

He would have been 86 years old this past August 18th had a plane crash not taken his life. Simply one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. Period.

I’m a little too young to have ever seen him play in person. There aren’t enough film clips from the era to satisfy my curiosity about how his grace looked on the field. My dad, and older friends, who did see him play at Forbes Field in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, recall an athlete of refined talent, strength, and finesse.

I can’t conceptualize a man of such natural aptitude in this day of superficial sports strength. As well, I can’t imagine a more genuine human sports figure than this man who died in a DC-7 crash while being a true humanitarian – leaving Puerto Rico on a chartered flight after supervising aid delivered to earthquake victims near Managua. He previously chartered, and paid for, three planes to deliver much needed cargo to the area and felt a fourth was required – with his personality aboard – to oversee the operations due to possible seizing and profiteering by the local military. He lost his life on December 31st, 1972 one mile off the coast of Nicaragua … and the world lost a true humanitarian.

All this after collecting his 3,000th hit on September 30th, 1972 … his final at bat.

The baseball card above is my all-time favorite of his. It’s as beautiful outside as he must have been inside. The 1972 Topps baseball set ranks high among the enduring memories I have of my childhood. When I think of class and charm in the baseball card collecting world, these early 70’s little pieces of cardboard always hit a homerun with me. Yes, that is such a hobbling analogical word to use … and I apologize for the lame insertion, but baseball cards back then represented really cool bubble gum, easy to open wax packs, and trips to the local store up the street to buy some candy and, of course, cards. Simple.

Harry. He was a taller, stout man. Then again, for a little guy like me, everyone was. My sister and I walked along a dangerous two-lane road – not knowing it was, of course. Cars whizzed by at higher rates of speed than we knew was allowed by law as we entered his store, laughingly dusting off our white socks. Harry’s display case on the right always had the candy and the boxes with unopened packs of those great smelling cards inside. To the left sat soda bottles, bread, and newspapers we had no interest in reading. The object was to quickly throw our change on the counter so he would know how many packs of cards we could buy. He was gentle with us, but stern with math. Not a quarter more, or less, garnered us favor no matter how many times we visited his little store a quarter mile up such a treacherous road we had no business walking along.

Once back home, the little brown bag opened dreams. My sister and I quickly ran our little fingers down through the wax seal to open the packs that, seconds earlier, gently fell out of the bag. We knew, even then, to be extra careful at the start. Now, I would jam those same cards into my bike tires within the hour and she, being my older, wiser, thinking-ahead sibling, carefully placed sharp four cornered gems into a box for safekeeping well into her fifth decade of life. Today, I live in regret (happily throwing away my youthful gem-mint perfect rookies of hall-of-fame players / retirement money into ten-speeds and concrete walls, while she, never mind …). Regret can be a strong word. I absolutely loved my childhood, baseball card days … and I adored the 1972 cards. They were the charm during some of my rough years in life.

… and I harbor no regret. That was a tinge of sarcasm above. Today, my collecting is active and engaging. The hobby has changed. Kids don’t walk beside dangerous roads with excitement – hoping to see the next, new design on the cards.

I waited with enthusiasm every spring. Colors, lines, team logos, spacing, borders … all artistically flavored in a card dessert for the eyes. In 1971, Topps baseball cards, however, were a delicacy disaster. Here’s the 1971 Clemente (bottom) compared to the 1972 design (top)

Isn’t this the most depressing card design ever? Ugh. That was the Edsel of the card collecting years. I figure the guy sitting around Topps just gave up. Saying, “Hey, I know what! … I’ll go all black on the border, with block letters for all the writing, and go get a beer.”, the head designer was probably one paycheck away from retirement and didn’t see the bad decision rounding third base. Ironically, the cards from this amass of mundaneness – if found in pristine condition – are the rarest due to the black borders. It is the most condition sensitive of all Topps sets and is huge – coming in at 752 total cards. A mint-9 Clemente, for reference, recently sold for $14,500. Still, I hate the design. And yes, no apologies for using hate.

Enter 1972. Low expectations when I opened the first pack. I imagine, now, the 1971 head designer was sitting on the beach sipping a less-than-well deserved cocktail as a newly appointed, forward thinking, awesomely creative, artistically pen-wielding sports lover took the helm. Imagined beauty. Essence at my fingertips back then. Out of the blackness into the light.

Comparisons of life to sports in words have made many writers millionaires. In reverse, many sports figures, who are already millionaires, have written words about life – as it relates to sports. The connection, in my world, has been – and is – at the end of my fingertips when I hold a single 2.5 x 3.5 inch piece of thin cardboard. My age doesn’t matter. My memories do and when I see something as beautiful as a 1972 baseball card, or the recalled vision in my brain of a much younger self sitting on a front porch with a small paper bag, I feel better about the present moment. A peace.

Probably the same feeling Clemente had boarding the plane knowing he did something nice, once again, for his people in Nicaragua. He was a hero. A true sports-man of his generation who knew his beauty. Someone whose legacy and honor has lasted well beyond that fateful last day of 1972. A year when artistry bloomed out of darkness in the card collecting world, but we lost a gentleman, a father, an athlete of refined talent who I never saw play.

This is ok in my world. I have card #309 to remember his strength and humanity – two qualities in life for all of us to remember when opening packs of kindness in our hearts.

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