Fifty years ago, the Big Apple honored the Great One
That sorrowful date was my earliest recollection of witnessing my late father shed tears over the death of someone he had never met. With the local newspaper in his hand, he approached my mother in the kitchen and shared in Spanish the news on the passing of Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente.
Playing with one of my holiday gifts (a table hockey set) in the living room, I overheard their conversation. Not necessarily understanding what just occurred, I headed to their bedroom. With the door slightly ajar, I peeked inside to see my father, still holding the newspaper, crying.
Although I never saw Clemente play, my dad, who emigrated from Puerto Rico in the early 1950s, took my brother and me to Shea Stadium in 1974. My only recollections of that first-ever visit, besides traveling from the South Bronx to Flushing, Queens, on the No. 7 train, were eating Milk Duds and getting a splinter in my left hand from the stadium seat.
I have no clue who won that ballgame, but eating my favorite chocolate-covered caramel snack kept me content. I do recall that tingling sensation in my hand, and it wasn’t from a foul ball. Nevertheless, how cool that would have been to have caught a baseball or even interact with my favorite players.
But 50 years ago, Todd Radom did catch a glimpse of Clemente, one of the all-time greatest Major League ballplayers, a player whom my father adored.
Badillo, a native of Caguas, P.R., became the first Puerto Rican borough president of the Bronx. In 1970, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives thus becoming the first Puerto Rican born congressman who proudly represented the South Bronx.
Gail Badillo, Herman’s widow, shared stories about her husband’s voracious appetite for reading. She said he was an avid outdoorsman who also competed in numerous New York City marathons. The couple also enjoyed trips to Yankee Stadium.
She said he was orphaned at an early age, received little guidance from relatives and couldn’t speak English. She recalled a life-changing moment when the editor of his high school newspaper took an interest in the future congressman. The editor recommended that Herman apply to City College of New York, which at that time was free for city residents. After earning his undergraduate degree, he enrolled in Brooklyn Law School and graduated summa cum laude.
During the pre-game ceremony at Shea, her husband welcomed Clemente to Queens and, along with other Puerto Rican community organizers, presented him with the Cadillac Eldorado. Before this two-day affair, Clemente designated four charities as the beneficiaries from the sponsorships/money collected during his weekend stay.
Throughout his political career, Badillo championed numerous causes, but when I asked Gail Badillo what she believed should be his lasting legacy, I wasn’t surprised by her response.
“His crowning achievement was his emphasis on education, because it came from his personal experience,” she told me. “He once said, ‘If we fail in education, we fail everywhere. It has to be our most urgent priority. Education was and is my crusade.’”
During that regular season game against the Pirates in 1971, a popular Mets’ outfielder from Alabama was in the lineup. Two years earlier at Shea, he caught the final out in the 1969 World Series to catapult his “Miracle Mets” to their first championship.
Cleon Jones, who like Clemente wore number 21, admired and watched his exploits from afar. He was in complete awe of how Clemente carried himself throughout his phenomenal career.
“There was Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente,” said Jones, who was in left field when Clemente’s eighth-inning double scored Gene Clines to provide the difference in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win that September night. “And not necessarily in that order and depending [on] who you’re pulling for. There were those three in the National League and then there was everyone else.”
He said the three greats “created their own fanfare.”
Jones remarked how he wanted no part of wearing those legendary numbers.
“I really wanted number 22 because that was my number in high school,” Jones said. “When I was given number 21, the player that came to mind was Roberto. You just wanted to try to live up to that number because you can certainly try to live up to his standards.”
Danny Torres is a freelance writer from the Bronx, N.Y. and the host of the Talkin’ 21 podcast