On New Year’s Eve 1972, an old cargo plane was taking off from Puerto Rico with relief supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. On board were five people, including Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ charismatic star outfielder.
His wife, Vera Clemente, went to see him off. She didn’t like the look of the plane and thought it was overloaded. In addition, the pilot was late, which annoyed her. She thought her husband should wait until the next day.
But Mr. Clemente insisted on flying that night. He was worried that relief supplies were falling into the hands of profiteers.
Shortly after takeoff, the plane plunged into the ocean, killing everyone on board. The sudden death of the 38-year-old Mr. Clemente, who was not just one of Major League Baseball’s best players but also its most famous humanitarian, shocked the world. His native Puerto Rico declared three days of mourning.
For the rest of her life, Vera Clemente, who was 30 at the time, dedicated herself to keeping her husband’s memory alive and carrying on his humanitarian legacy.
She died Saturday at 78 after being hospitalized in San Juan. The Pirates announced on Nov. 1 that she was in delicate health and had been hospitalized. The Pirates and Major League Baseball, for which she was a goodwill ambassador, announced her death.
“Vera epitomized grace, dignity and strength in the wake of heartbreaking tragedy and loss,” Bob Nutting, the Pirates’ chairman, said in a statement.
On her own, Ms. Clemente raised their three sons, Roberto Jr., Luis and Enrique, who were 2, 5 and 6 at the time. (They survive her, as do several grandchildren.)
When he died, Roberto Clemente had been planning to create a sports centre for children in Puerto Rico, and Vera Clemente had planned to teach there.
In short order, she established the Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente (Roberto Clemente Sports City), which he had envisioned as a place where young people could play sports, but where they could also learn other skills, like reading, and attend programs, like drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics. Since then, hundreds of thousands of youths have taken part in its activities.
“When he died, I felt the responsibility to at least make a reality of a sports city, to give children the opportunity not just to become stars but good citizens,” Ms. Clemente told The New York Times in 1994. “My main purpose was to do what he was planning to do.”
She said she was compelled to carry out her husband’s wishes not only because of the way he died but also because of the way he had lived.
“If he had died in a common way, people would still remember him,” she said. “But Dec. 31, it was a special day, and his was a special mission. I admire him for that, as a person, as a human being. So his image I keep alive. I feel happy doing what I am doing.”
Vera Zabala was born in Puerto Rico on March 7, 1941. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in business administration and worked as a teller at the government bank in Carolina, just outside San Juan.
One day in 1964 she left the bank to go to the drugstore across the street when Mr. Clemente, who was driving by, spotted her, according to David Maraniss’ biography “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” (2006).
He introduced himself to her inside the drugstore, but Zabala didn’t give him the time of day. Besides, her father was strict and kept her on a short leash.
Mr. Clemente, who was several years into his Hall of Fame career, pursued her by calling her friends and neighbours. She kept turning him down but eventually relented.
He told her that he was in a hurry to have a family because he was going to die young but that God had a plan for him, according to Duane Rieder, founder and executive director of the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. Mr. Rieder quoted her as saying, “I felt God’s plan for me was to assist Roberto.”
They were married on Nov. 14, 1964, in Carolina, where Roberto Clemente was born, just east of San Juan, with hundreds of people in attendance, including the governor and several of Ms. Clemente’s fellow ballplayers.
Mr. Clemente was killed just eight years later, and his widow stepped into the role of humanitarian.
Every year, she took an active part in choosing the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, an honour given since 1973 to the player who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
After Hurricane Harvey, she flew to Houston during the 2017 World Series to present the award to Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs’ first baseman, who was a cancer survivor and who had established a foundation to help children with the disease.
While in Houston, she took time out to volunteer at a food bank to help families recovering from the hurricane.