The 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit and final season took place in 2012, and fans old enough to have seen him play still marvel at the skills he displayed on the baseball field. Those same fans can also recall the intense heartache they felt when the Pirates' gifted right fielder died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while attempting to bring relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on New Year's Eve in 1972.
Roberto Clemente Jr., one of the Hall of Famer's three sons, was 7 years old when his father died -- and for weeks, months and even years afterward, he saw many people cry.
"It was hard for me to understand the magnitude of what happened when I was boy," he said. "I would see all of these people, and I didn't understand why they were crying. Now I understand it was because of the way my father touched people's lives. They identified with him as a baseball player, but they also identified with him as a human being. They loved the way he played the game, but the way he gave his life trying to help others definitely pressed a lot of buttons, too."
Noted Pittsburgh sports author Jim O'Brien was a young boy growing up in Hazelwood, Pa., not far from Forbes Field, when Clemente began to make his mark in the game in the mid- to late-1950s, and he too believes Clemente's staying power as a legend goes beyond what he accomplished on the field.
"His martyrdom has contributed to the fact that he's still extremely popular 40 years after his death," O'Brien said. "A lot of young people who never saw Roberto Clemente play are enamored with his image and his story. The idea that a professional athlete was active in trying to help people in the rescue mission in Nicaragua obviously has very strong appeal.
"And Clemente was no honorary chairman of the Nicaraguan relief effort, because honorary chairmen don't board airplanes to make sure that everything got where it was supposed to go. That's the thing that's made Clemente last for 40 years, even more so than the great ballplayer he was. He was a beloved figure, but his death and the manner in which he died have contributed to his longevity. He has stood the test of time."
The tragedy that cut Clemente's life short occurred just three months after he became the 11th player in baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. Even though the four-time National League batting champion had turned 38 in August of 1972, he was still in terrific shape, and his ex-teammates believe he could have played for several more years.
"A lot of us felt like Roberto could have played a lot longer because he took care of himself very, very well," former Pirates relief ace Dave Giusti said. "When you saw him in person, he was an Adonis. He was put together so well. He just had a great physique."
"Roberto was a physical contradiction because he was 38 and looked like he was 25," said former Pittsburgh pitcher Steve Blass, who shared the spotlight with Clemente during the Pirates' triumph over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series. "It didn't matter much to us when Roberto clicked over to age 38, because we still got the same stuff we got at 37. To tell you the truth, we thought he was ageless."
Clemente, who stood 5-foot-11 and weighed about 180 pounds, played for the Pirates for 18 years (1955-72) and batted a cumulative .317 with 240 home runs and 1,305 RBIs. He also won 12 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards for his defensive excellence, was a 12-time All-Star, and earned the NL's Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, when he hit .317 and posted career highs in home runs (29) and RBIs (119).
Because he died so young, people never saw Clemente age or see his body deteriorate. The lasting image everyone has of him is of a chiseled, gifted athlete.
"He died at 38, so that's still the vision in our heads," said Duane Rieder, who opened the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh (Lawrenceville) with the family's blessing in 2006. "When you close your eyes, you see Clemente running around the bases, just like he did 40 years ago.
"There was something magical about the way he ran, the way he threw, the way he hit and even the way he walked to home plate with the swagger he had. He was like nobody else. He played like he was being filmed for a movie. He was just so graceful. It was like he was something other than a man."
Being the namesake of such a great man hasn't always been easy for Roberto Jr., but nonetheless he wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.
"Many times I've felt like whenever I walked out the door, I had to deal with the fact that people were going to talk about my father, and with the way I missed him, that was very hard," he said. "But at the same time, for me to carry his name is an honor. I see my father's legacy of goodwill everywhere I go. There's a connection forever of baseball and goodwill. It's overwhelming for me to see that after 40 years, it's stronger than ever."
Jim Lachimia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.