Felix Millan, a Puerto Rican second baseman who played for the Braves from 1966 to 72, recalls, "In 1970 I was hitting .325 in midseason, and at dinner one night I told Roberto, "I think I can hit .300 this year.' He got mad, if you think you can hit .300,' he said, 'you will hit .280. If you think .325, then you will hit .300.' I did as he said and ended up hitting .310."
In 1967 a scene for the movie The Odd Couple was being filmed at Shea Stadium, and Clemente and several other Pirates agreed to be in a scene for $100 apiece. But the script called for Clemente to hit into a triple play, and the more he thought it over that night, the less he liked the idea. The next day one of the producers came up to him and said, "Hiya, Roberto. How's my old buddy?"
"I am not old, I am not your buddy, and I am not going to be in your——movie," Clemente said. "How do you like that, old buddy?"
Clemente then turned to a teammate and said, "Nobody buys Roberto cheap. I have my pride. I am a hero to my people. Do they think Roberto Clemente was born yesterday? Would they ask Cary Grant to play baseball for a hundred dollars? If fans in Puerto Rico see me hit into a triple play, they won't understand." And that is why, in The Odd Couple, it is Bill Mazeroski who hits into the triple play.
Vera Zabala was in a drugstore in Puerto Rico when Roberto Clemente first laid eyes on her, after the 1963 season. She was 23, and he was infatuated. "On our first real date," Vera says, "he told me he was going to marry me. On our second date he brought pictures of houses."
They were married on Nov. 14, 1964, before a crowd of 1,500 at the San Fernando Chapel. "What a couple," declares Mayoral. "The most beautiful woman in Puerto Rico, and the most famous man." On Aug. 17, 1965, Roberto Clemente Jr.—Robertito—was born. A year later Vera gave birth to Luis Roberto, and three years after that to Enrique Roberto.
As his family grew, the tightly wound Clemente gradually began to relax. Says Blass, "I got to the Pirates in '64, halfway through Roberto's career, but even from that point on, he mellowed. Loquito he called me, and we became good friends despite our different backgrounds. I used to kid with him all the time. In the days of Mission: Impossible I used to sneak up underneath the training table when Roberto was on it—and he was always on it—and say, 'Good afternoon, Mr. Clemente. This is your neck speaking. Your mission today, should you decide to accept it, will be to go 3 for 4 against Tom Seaver....' And he would always play along, look around and say, 'Where is that voice coming from?'
"Some of the best times we had were the poker games on our flights. [Catcher] Manny Sanguillen, who worshiped Roberto, was the worst poker player in the world. On a cross-country flight he'd be out of money over Chicago. But after every hand Roberto, who wasn't even in the game, would give Manny this very serious lecture about poker. 'Manny, how could you draw to an inside straight?' I can still see the two of them, scrunched up in a seat together, losing Roberto's money."
Clemente was appreciated by his teammates from the beginning. But it was not until late in his career that he finally received the public recognition he deserved. The Pirates made July 24, 1970, Roberto Clemente Night at Three Rivers Stadium, and a delegation from Puerto Rico brought a greeting bearing 300,000 signatures. In '71, Puerto Rican fans in New York presented him with a Cadillac. Pirate owner John Galbreath named a horse after him, and Roberto ended up winning the 1972 Epsom Derby.
Though Clemente would get his 3,000th hit in 1972, his crowning glory really came in the 1971 World Series. As they had been 11 years before, the Pirates were decided underdogs, this time to the Baltimore Orioles. Clemente put on some sort of clinic in every game: running, throwing, fielding, hitting. Says Brown, "During the '71 Series, people said to me, 'My God, does he always play like that?' And I said, 'Yes. Always. You're not seeing anything that we don't see day in and day out.' "