Vera Clemente, the Pirates’ matriarch and Roberto’s widow, enjoyed what was surely an emotional and long-awaited reunion with her husband on Saturday.
After she had been in “delicate health” since Nov. 1, Vera Clemente died of unknown causes in her native Puerto Rico, surrounded by family and friends. She was 78.
The loss was difficult to take for many Pirates fans, especially those who had idolized Roberto and, as a result, had gotten to know his wife; turns out empathy and philanthropy were not ideals only the baseball-playing half of the marriage carried.
Vera Clemente is survived by three sons: Roberto Clemente Jr., Luis Roberto Clemente and Roberto Enrique Clemente.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Vera Clemente, the widow of the great Roberto Clemente and a cherished member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Major League Baseball family,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting said in a statement.
“Vera epitomized grace, dignity and strength in the wake of heartbreaking tragedy and loss. Following Roberto’s passing, Vera raised their three sons into outstanding men, while also working tirelessly to ensure her and her husband’s shared vision of compassion, service and love of others lived on forever.
“Vera was an amazing ambassador for the Pirates organization, our city, the game of baseball and their beloved Puerto Rico. It is with very heavy hearts that we send our condolences to Roberto Jr., Luis, Enrique and the entire Clemente family. May they find comfort in knowing that Vera and Roberto are together once again.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released the following statement as well:
“All of us at Major League Baseball are saddened by the passing of Vera Clemente, the wife of legendary Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. As a Goodwill Ambassador for MLB, Vera impacted countless children and extended her family’s humanitarian legacy of helping those in need. With grace and strength, she led the way in welcoming players to the fraternity of Roberto Clemente Award winners, the single most prestigious off-the-field honor in our game.
“Vera’s baseball family will miss her greatly. We send our deepest condolences to Roberto Jr., Luis, Enrique, the entire Clemente family, the fans of Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico, and her many admirers across our game.”
Vera Christina Zabala Clemente graduated first in her class from the University of Puerto Rico and made it a point, following her husband’s death, to continue their dedication to helping others.
She was strong, smart, gentle and funny, the perfect ambassador for carrying on the Clemente legacy — in large part because she also helped to create it.
Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while attempting to deliver disaster relief supplies to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake.
“If he had died in a common way, people would still remember him,” Vera Clemente said in a 1994 New York Times article. “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.”
In a September 2018 article that appeared on La Vida Baseball, a website dedicated to Latino baseball, Luis Clemente spoke about his mother’s tireless work honoring her late husband and giving to others via the Roberto Clemente Foundation, which she chaired.
“Mom has been the pillar of the family,” Luis said. “She has been the source of inspiration for us to do what we do today, through the Roberto Clemente Foundation. She basically spearheaded all of the efforts to have the legacy continue.”
Vera Clemente had spent the past several days at the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In their Nov. 1 announcement of Vera Clemente’s health issues, the Pirates did not disclose what ailed Vera Clemente.
Within an hour of the news that Vera Clemente had passed away, the governor of Puerto Rico offered her condolences.
“I join the pain of the family of Mrs. Vera Cristina Zabala, widow of our star, Roberto Clemente,” Wanda Vázquez Garced tweeted. “Vera worked to ensure that Clemente’s legacy will last. … Rest in peace.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto also took to Twitter: “Pittsburgh sends our prayers to the Clemente family, on the loss of Vera,” Peduto wrote.
The Clementes were wed on Nov. 14, 1964, in Carolina, Puerto Rico. In 1974, Vera helped realize one of her husband’s dreams by helping to open the Roberto Clemente Sports City, a place where young Puerto Ricans could develop their skills at sports.
Roberto Clemente played for the Pirates from 1954-72 and was World Series MVP after hitting .414 against the Baltimore Orioles in 1971. He was a .317 career hitter, finished with exactly 3,000 hits and won four batting titles.
Roberto Clemente was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame following a special election in 1973.
Major League Baseball honors Clemente every year with an award — the Roberto Clemente Award — given out to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” It was originally titled the “Commissioner’s Award,” but MLB changed the name in 1973 to honor the 15-time All-Star following his death.
Carlos Carrasco of the Cleveland Indians won it this past season. Andrew McCutchen was the Pirates’ most recent winner, in 2015. Trevor Williams was the Pirates’ nominee this past season.
Every year, on Sept. 6, the Pirates and Pirates Charities celebrate Clemente Day by blanketing the community for charity events and finding various ways to give back.
The most recent Clemente Day celebration was a tough one for the Pirates, as it coincided with their former closer, Felipe Vazquez, admitting he had sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl.
After munching on Chick-fil-A with a bunch of youngsters inside the Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville, shortstop Cole Tucker talked about how the day was almost therapeutic for the Pirates.
“As pro baseball players, we have a platform to be role models for kids all over the world,” Tucker said. “In light of the news that we’re all kind of digesting right now, it’s extremely important for us to go out and do good like this.
“It’s our way of pushing forward, continuing to be good people and continuing to hold ourselves to the standard that Clemente set.”
Nobody reached and maintained that standard quite as well as Vera Clemente, the matriarch of the Clemente legacy.
“I am very proud to be Roberto’s son,” Luis Clemente said, “but I feel extremely fortunate to be Vera’s son as well.”
Jason Mackey: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
First Published November 16, 2019, 5:56pm