Hall of Fame slugger Roberto Clemente died 40 years ago on New Year's Eve, and MLB Network is running a video to help us remember his impact. You can watch it above. You probably already know a lot of the background. Clemente was killed with four others in a plane crash as they tried to get food and other supplies from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. He was just 38 years old and finished with exactly 3,000 hits in his Major League Baseball career.
Clemente's premature end is sort of the "Day the Music Died" for baseball fans. Even if you didn't have a chance to see Clemente play, it chokes you up. It certainly makes you wonder what might have been, if he had lived. The Hall of Fame waived its five-year waiting period — something it had done only for Lou Gehrig — and Clemente was admitted to Cooperstown the summer following his death. The first big baseball star from Latin America, Clemente is considered a Jackie Robinson-type figure to many.
But did you also know that Neil Walker, the Pirates second baseman today, might not be here if not for Clemente?
Among those interviewed in the video — along with the likes of countryman Orlando Cepeda and teammate Steve Blass — was Tom Walker, a friend of Clemente's who played with him in winter ball, and who wanted to help Clemente get supplies to Nicaragua on New Year's Eve 1972:
"Forty years later, I think of a man that, probably, saved my life," Tom Walker said. "He said, ‘No, you need to go back and enjoy the evening.’ And I can’t help but think about that now. I’ve had four wonderful children and, it turns out that one of them is the second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And if you look at the right-field wall (at PNC Park), it’s the Clemente Wall. It’s got his number, 21, and I’m sure that my son Neil comes out of the dugout and goes out to second base … he’s got to see that wall everyday."
Neil Walker commented on this link during the 2012 season.
Tom Walker had been a 23-year-old rookie with the Montreal Expos the year Clemente died. He pitched for three other teams — the Angels, Cardinals and Tigers — over parts of six seasons. By 1978, his baseball career was over.
But in 1985, he and his wife welcomed Neil Walker into the world. And, as Tom Walker mentioned, they had three other kids as well — all people that wouldn't have been here if Clemente accepted Tom Walker's offer on New Year's Eve 1972.