September 15 is Roberto Clemente Day across Major League Baseball in honor of the late Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder who died in a plane crash trying to deliver supplies to earthquake-torn Nicaragua.
While fans take the opportunity to celebrate Clemente’s legacy, that day holds special meaning for me. It brings back fond memories of the time I met “The Great One” in person.
It happened on Team Photo Day in 1971 when fans were allowed on the field to take pictures of (notice I didn’t say with) Pirates players. These were the days before selfies!
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a lifelong Pirates fan. It all started during the 1960 World Series frenzy, when I was 2 years old, and continues to this day, win or lose. The free tickets awarded to straight-A students like me during the 1970s also helped seal the deal.
The chance to meet and photograph players on the field at Three Rivers Stadium was a dream come true. So, my parents took me to the game, where I snapped quite a few photos of what would later turn out to be members of the 1971 World Series championship team.
Stanchions separated fans from the players, allowing them to walk past, stop to say hello and pose for a photo before moving on to the next fan.
When it was Roberto’s turn, he asked if I wanted to pose with him. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I remember the excitement, thinking “He’s a baseball legend and he wants to pose with me?” No security guard in the world would tell Roberto Clemente he couldn’t pose with a fan, so they moved the stanchions out of the way, and there I was, standing right next to “The Great One.” My dad, who was also a big Pirates fan, proudly snapped what became my prized photo.
Years later at the 2016 Piratesfest, I showed the photo to Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole and shortstop Jordy Mercer. They were mesmerized.
To current and former players and baseball fans everywhere, the name Roberto Clemente is synonymous with baseball excellence, charity and compassion. I was the lucky recipient of the kindness and compassion this 15-time All-Star and Hall of Famer showed to a young Pirates fan.
Much like the rest of Pittsburgh, I was devastated by the news of Clemente’s death on New Year’s Eve 1972. It was like losing a family member.
I will always treasure, and never forget, my brush with greatness.