Roberto Clemente and Franco Harris – two names that recall a variety of adjectives. I choose the words leader, role model, iconic, and inspirational. This month marks the 50th anniversary of two moments in time that helped shape my childhood and the destiny of a city.
Just a few months earlier, on September 30th, 1972, Roberto Clemente collected his historic 3000th Major League Baseball hit. At the time, he was only the 11th player to reach this magical mark and he was the was first Latino to do so. The Pirates, who were a dominant team in the 1970s and had won the World Series the season before clinched the division days earlier. Clemente, the fierce competitor he was, had a determination to reach the 3000 hit mark in this season. He got extremely hot down the stretch and was only one hit away. Normally superstars in their late 30s might sit out a few games to get their bodies ready for the playoffs. Not Bobby Clemente, as legendary Pirates broadcaster, Bob, “The Gunner” Prince would call him. The Gunner and Clemente had a relationship similar to that of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali.
The Pirates had a very small crowd for this game and for some lucky reason, I happen to have been in attendance. It was the first baseball game I’d ever attended live. Tickets were not readily available for us growing up and somehow my grandparents ended up for tickets for this game. I remember waking up sick as a dog but didn’t tell a soul. I was not going to miss this game. Willie Mays was on the Mets bench and Roberto playing for the Pirates. I had to be there. When he got hit number 3,000 – a no doubter double to left center field – he got to second base and tipped his cap. The crowd of a little more than 13,000 stood and screamed. I had just witnessed an incredible moment in my very first baseball game. We got home and I threw up all over the entryway of our home. I didn’t care, because this was a game, I’d never forget.
Fast forward to December of that year, Roberto the humanitarian left on a mission to Nicaragua to bring relief supplies to a country in need. His flight took off and it never landed. Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash on New Years Eve, 1972. I received the news like everyone else early on New Year’s Day, 1973. I cried and a city wept. We’d lost our hero, a leader, and a great humanitarian. Forget the fact that he hit safely in EVERY world series game he ever played in, this man died trying to help those less fortunate. His memory would indeed last forever. That iconic pose of him tipping his cap at second base has been reproduced countless times and I own a pencil sketch that I have kept hung in important places for the past several decades.
Pittsburgh’s football team, the Steelers were not accustomed to any type of winning tradition. In fact they were awful. But this 1972 had put it all together and were on their way not only to a winning season, but a shot at the Super Bowl. They were facing what would become their arch nemesis during the 1970s – the Oakland Raiders in a playoff game. The winner would face the undefeated Miami Dolphins for the right to play in the Super Bowl. It was a tight game on a very cold Pittsburgh December day – the 23rd to be exact.
The Steelers led 3-0 behind a dominant defense after three quarters and added another field goal early in the fourth to take a 6-0 lead. But Ken Stabler, the Raiders Quarterback would run for a 30 yard score to put the Raiders up 7-6 with very little time remaining. The Steelers had one last chance and found themselves down to their last play. Quarterback and legend, Terry Bradshaw went back to look for a receiver, scrambled around and thought he saw an open Frenchy Fuqua downfield. The ball hit an Oakland defender and bounced back several yards and appeared to fall incomplete. Out of nowhere, Franco Harris who had been trailing the play scooped the ball out of the air and scampered sixty yards to the end zone in what is still today the most remarkable play in NFL history. The “Immaculate Reception” gave the Steelers a victory and put them on a path to greatness for the rest of the 1970s that went unmatched.
Roberto Clemente and Franco Harris are leaders who made bold things happen on and off the field. Franco is still a leader in the Pittsburgh community and has really carried on the tradition set forth by Roberto. I was fortunate to have grown up watching these two. It’s the type of person I am happy to have had playing for the teams I cared so much about (and still do).
Leadership and character matter. Don’t be afraid to take chances.