THE ABDUCTION OF ROBERTO CLEMENTE

By Howie Mooney

Sports is a world of amazing stories. There are stories and then there are…STORIES. In today’s 24/7 news and sports multiverse, we usually can find out just about everything and anything with the click of a button. But some things don’t get reported right away. And, often, as is the case with things that happened decades ago, we often have to wait for an intrepid reporter to get the story before we could really find out about it.

There was an event that took place in May of 1969 that was kept quiet by the victim for more than a year. It took place in San Diego during the Pittsburgh Pirates first western road trip of the year. From Friday, May 16 to Sunday, May 18, 1969, the Bucs had played three games at Dodger Stadium and, as often happens to Eastern teams that head westward to Chavez Ravine to start a trip, they were swept.

The Monday was an off day and the team then headed south to San Diego for games on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday with the expansion Padres before heading back north to play a weekend series in San Francisco against Mays, McCovey, Marichal and the Giants. It would be the first time the Pirates ever played in the almost-brand-new San Diego Stadium (later to be renamed Jack Murphy Stadium). The Padres, and their strange brown and gold uniforms might be a welcome tonic after three losses to the Dodgers.

The Pirates had already faced the new team from San Diego when they split a two-game series at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks earlier. But for many of the players, this trip to San Diego might provide them with new places to see and restaurants to try. The team was put up at the Town and Country Hotel, a decent looking place on what was called Hotel Circle. It was reasonably close to San Diego Stadium – not walkable, really, but a quick ride on the team bus away.

The first game went well for the visitors. They doubled the Padres 6-3. Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen and Bill Mazeroski each went 2-for-4. Maz had a pair of runs batted in while Stargell, Sanguillen, Freddie Patek and pitcher Jim Bunning each had single RBIs. Matty Alou also had a pair of hits in five at-bats. It was an easy night’s work for most of the Pirates.

It hadn’t been a great trip for Roberto Clemente though. He had gone just 2-for 14 in the four games on the west coast to this point and he had missed a bunch of games before this series when the team was at home and playing other Eastern clubs. His shoulder had been bothering him and he had not really been enjoying playing the game as he had in the past.

After that Tuesday night game, according to the Pittsburgh Press’ Bill Christine, Clemente went to his hotel room and called back to Pittsburgh to talk to his wife, Vera. He explained all his feelings to her. He had been ejected from a game recently, which for him was a rarity. He wasn’t hitting well, he had missed a bunch of games in recent weeks and his shoulder was really bothering him. He told Vera that he wanted to retire right then and there. Vera calmed Roberto down.

“Finish the road trip,” she told her husband. “Then if you come back to Pittsburgh and don’t feel any better, it will be alright to quit. That’s a promise. Okay?”

“Okay,” Roberto told Vera. “You’re the boss. But if I don’t feel any better when I get back to Pittsburgh, then it is all over.”

Clemente was 34 and would turn 35 in August. That’s an age where an athlete’s body tends to start betraying them. Clemente was fortunate to have Vera there to bounce his thoughts off. He decided to maybe go for a walk, and he left his hotel room and headed down to the lobby. It was there that he ran into his teammate, Willie Stargell. Stargell had something in his hand that smelled good.

“It’s chicken,” Stargell told Clemente. “There’s a place just down the road where you can get some.” So, Clemente left the Town and Country and headed out into the warm Pacific coast night. It wasn’t long before he had found the chicken spot and placed his order. With his evening meal in hand, he began his walk back toward his hotel.

That was when Clemente’s life got a jolt on his first ever trip to San Diego.

As he was walking back from the chicken place, about 400 feet from his hotel room, a car pulled up to his side and stopped him. There were four men in the vehicle – at least one had a gun – and they demanded that he get in. They took him up a mountain that looks down on Mission Valley. Mission Valley is the area in which the Town and Country and the stadium both reside.

It was at an isolated spot on the side of the road that they ordered the Pirates’ star to strip. He took off his jacket, shirt, pants, shoes, socks and his undershirt. Rifling through his clothing, they grabbed his wallet, about $250 in cash and his All-Star ring. At this point, Clemente thought that his life might be about to end and his body tossed aside.

“This is when I figure they are going to shoot me and throw me into the woods,” he told Bill Christine. “They already have the pistol inside my mouth.” At this point, he began to try to talk his way out of his predicament. He told them what he thought they may want to hear. “I told them I was a ball player for the San Diego Padres. I would have told them the Pirates, but if they not know us, then that would not work.”

Apparently, the captors weren’t really aware of the Padres either. But when they doubted Clemente, he told them to check his wallet. It contained a card that showed he was a member of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He also told them to check out his ring as proof. It showed him to be an All-Star. Also, remember that this was after a night game, and they were in the mountains. It was likely very dark where they were.

At one point, Clemente heard two of the men speaking Spanish. He began speaking Spanish to one of the men. That may have been what saved his life. He said to him, “If you really need the money, take it. But don’t kill me. Don’t kill anybody for money.” Clemente told Bill Christine that, had they killed him and left him up there, his body would likely never have been found.

According to a piece by Dan Holmes at baseballegg.com, Clemente told the men who he actually was and once they believed that he was truly Roberto Clemente, and he was able to reason with them, they gave him his clothes, his ring and wallet back. He was told to dress. One of them instructed him, “Don’t forget to put on your tie. We want you to look good.” After that, the men drove him back to within several blocks of his hotel. There, they let him go.

“I started walking and then I heard their car returning. I started looking around for a rock, but I couldn’t find one.” The men drove up beside him and one man handed Clemente back his bag of chicken. “Here.” He didn’t eat the chicken.

For a long time, Clemente kept his story to himself and a few people close to him. He had told teammates Jose Pagan and Matty Alou almost right away. He told one of his coaches, Bill Virdon, his manager, Larry Shepherd and he told his general manager, Joe Brown as well. They respected his wishes to keep his story to themselves. He kept it mostly private until a little over a year later, when he was approached the Press’ Bill Christine.

Christine had received a tip and he approached Clemente. The star outfielder explained to the writer why he had kept the story quiet for so long. “I haven’t told this story to many people because I figured if any of the four robbers heard about it, they might be looking for our ball players when we go out there again.”

He had spent time thinking about that night and he remembered one specific detail in particular. “When we were up on that hill and they made me undress, all they had on was the car’s parking lights. But when they went through my wallet to see if I was a ball player, they turn on the regular lights. Then I see one of them. He have a tic on one side. It make him seem like he was smiling all the time. I never forget that face if I see it again.”

After Christine wrote his story, The Sporting News followed up with a story of their own. They quoted Clemente as saying, “I figure this way. They didn’t hurt me, and nobody knew about it. I think they learned a lesson. I forget. I don’t hold anything against anybody. I had a complete feeling that nothing would happen to me. My mother always says to me, ‘Never hurt anybody and nothing will happen to you.’”

The story even got some run in a Sports Illustrated piece at the front of the magazine later that week. They called it their most thrilling Fried Chicken Item of the week.

*

There were people who disbelieved Clemente’s story. It’s true that the story does sound quite wild. But, as Charley Feeney of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a few days after Christine’s story broke, “I believe Clemente.” Feeney wrote of a knife-point robbery in Chicago in 1969. The robbers took the money from two reporters, then stopped and gave some money back. “Here, you might need a cab to take you back to your hotel,” one of the thieves said.

When they reported the crime to police, the cop told one of the victims, “They figured that if you didn’t have to borrow any money from strangers or a cop, you might not report it to police.” It’s strange logic, but, really, when you’re out late at night, anything can happen. If you get out physically unscathed, you might just be grateful to be able to wake up the next morning.

*

After the game on the Tuesday night (and before he was abducted), Clemente’s batting average was at .225. The next day, Clemente started in right field for the Pirates. He went 1-for-4 with an RBI and a walk in an 11-1 Pittsburgh win. On the Thursday, in the series finale, he went 3-for-5 with three RBIs in a 7-1 win. The next night, in San Francisco, the Bucs fell 3-0, but Clemente kept his hitting streak going, as he managed a single in three at-bats. His average was now up to .250.

He then went on a torrid hitting pace the rest of the way as he finished the season with an average of .345 in 138 games. It’s safe to say that when he and his team got back to Pittsburgh, he did not retire. He was an All-Star once again in 1969 and he also received a Gold Glove for his play in right field. He also finished eighth in voting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

Clemente was one of the greatest players of his generation. Sadly, for him, he was Black and Hispanic in a country that had not yet fully accepted players of either of those ethnicities. He was misunderstood by many for a lot of his career. When he came into the majors, many couldn’t relate to his heritage and writers referred to him as ‘Bob’ or ‘Bobby’. He bristled at that and corrected many, letting them know that his name was ‘Roberto’. That issue continued until about 1969.

Much of the rest of Clemente’s time in baseball is something you most likely already know. He finished the 1972 season by collecting his 3000th career base hit. After an earthquake ripped through Nicaragua in late 1972, Clemente organized a drive to raise food, clothing, and money for the damaged country. He was on board the plane that was going to distribute the aid to the affected areas when it went down in water just after leaving his native Puerto Rico.

The 15-time All-Star’s body was never found.

The following season, 1973, the Pirates retired his uniform number 21. Also, instead of having to go through the customary waiting period, Clemente was immediately inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame. In the ESPN documentary series SportsCentury in 2002, his widow Vera told the interviewer that her husband had told her numerous times that he thought he might die young.

In July of 1971, he was being interviewed by a future Hall of Fame ballplayer and broadcaster at the time, Richie Ashburn, as a precursor to the All-Star Game in Detroit. Ashburn asked Clemente when he thought he might get his 3,000th hit. Clemente answered, “Well, uh, you never know. I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So, you can never know what can happen tomorrow.”

Make the best of every day while you can. Roberto Clemente’s words are wise. “You never know what can happen tomorrow.

*     *     *

Howie’s new book MORE Crazy Days & Wild Nights, eleven new stories of outlandish and wild events that occurred in sports over the last fifty years,is available on Amazon. It’s the follow-up to his first book of 2023, Crazy Days & Wild Nights! If you love sports and sports history, you need these books!

You can hear Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne talk sports history on The Sports Lunatics Show, a podcast, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio and Google Podcasts and at firedupnetwork.ca on 212 different platforms. Check out The Sports Lunatics Show on YouTube too! Please like and subscribe so others can find the shows more easily after you. And check out all their great content at thesportslunatics.com.

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