In the seventh game Clemente's homer off Mike Cuellar in the fourth inning gave the Pirates a 1-0 lead, and they went on to a 2-1 victory as Blass pitched a four-hitter to go with his three-hitter in Game 3. Against all odds the Pirates had won the World Series. In the jubilant clubhouse after the game Clemente, who had hit .414 with two home runs in the Series, was asked on the air by Bob Prince for his reaction. "I would like to say something in Spanish to my mother and father in Puerto Rico," he said. And then in Spanish: "On this, the proudest day of my life, I ask for your blessing."
In the rush that followed, the two friends and heroes, Clemente and Blass, didn't get a chance to talk to one another. "I was talking to the reporters, and so was he," says Blass. "Even after we got dressed, he and Vera went on one bus to the airport, and my wife, Karen, and I ended up on the other. On the plane we sat in the back while they sat up front. After the plane was in the air, Roberto walked back to where we were sitting...I'm sorry, I'm getting the chills remembering...and he leans over and says, 'Come out here, Blass. Let me embrace you.' "
Clemente's last official hit was his 3,000th. It came in the last week of the 1972 season, a fourth-inning double off Jon Matlack of the Mets. (He did have four more hits in the Pirates' three games-to-two loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1972 National League Championship Series.) Mayoral recalls, "There was a pregame ceremony on the day after his 3,000th hit, on October 1. We gave him two awards, the Governor's Cup and a clod of earth from the field in Puerto Rico where he used to play. A picture went out over the wires, and when you looked at it, Roberto had such a sadness to his face. He looked almost gray in the black-and-white picture. I remember showing the picture to Pancho Coímbre, a great player in the Negro leagues and a favorite of Roberto's. Pancho took one look at the picture and said, 'Este hombre está muerto.' This man is dead. Three months later Pancho's premonition came true."
That was not the only omen, according to Vera. "In early November," she says, "around Election Day, Roberto woke up and said, 'I just had the strangest dream. I was sitting up in the clouds, watching my own funeral.' "
Later that month the Clementes went to Nicaragua because Roberto was to manage a team in an amateur tournament there. "The people were so nice to us on that trip," says Vera. "Roberto was very touched by a young boy who needed to be fitted for artificial legs, and he paid for the operation. He was also very proud of an alligator-skin briefcase he bought in Managua. I remember how the players kidded him about it."
When an earthquake hit Nicaragua on Dec. 23, killing 10,000, injuring 20,000 and leaving 250,000 homeless, Clemente did not have to be asked twice to contribute to Puerto Rico's relief effort. He threw himself into the task so heartily that he left many of his Christmas presents unopened. Two planes filled with supplies had already flown to Nicaragua, and Roberto decided to take the third. "He had heard that the previous shipments hadn't gotten through," says Vera, "and he was worried about the boy whom he was helping there." Vera and several of his friends tried to talk him out of flying on New Year's Eve, but Clemente insisted he had to go. "Three times I told my grandmother that Papa's plane was going to crash," says Robertito. "But nobody was listening to a seven-year-old."
The plane that Clemente had chartered for the mission was a prop-driven DC-7 owned by American Air Express Leasing Co., whose president, Arthur Rivera, was the copilot that day. Unbeknownst to Clemente, Rivera had had his license suspended for 180 days that year, and earlier in the month he had smashed the very same plane into a concrete wall while taxiing. The plane had barely been used in four months. The flight engineer was an unqualified mechanic, and the cargo was two tons over the limit.
The flight was due to take off at around 3 p.m. But it was delayed twice, and not until 9 p.m. did it taxi down the runway. Witnesses say they saw fire on the left side of the plane as it took off, and when it banked to get back to the airport, it plunged into the sea, about a mile and a half offshore.
Vera had assumed Roberto was already in Nicaragua—she had left him at the airport in the afternoon—so when she was first told of the crash in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, she thought there must be some mistake. Nobody quite believed the news. Joe Brown remembers the night this way: "After we heard, my wife and I were sitting up in the living room, not knowing what to do, when the doorbell rang. It was 5 a.m., and there were Steve Blass and Dave Giusti. One of them said, 'We didn't know where to go. We didn't know what to do. We knew you felt like we did, and we had to share it with somebody.' So my wife brewed a pot of coffee, and we sat there and told Clemente stories, and cried and laughed."
The Pirates chartered a plane to go down to San Juan, and at a Jan. 4 memorial service at the church in which Roberto and Vera had been married. Blass read the poem that had been written for Lou Gehrig, part of which is this: