The Kidnapping of Roberto Clemente

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It’s a bizarre story that involves mysterious kidnappers, guns, fried chicken, and an All-Star outfielder.

But even though it was reportedly harrowing, Roberto Clemente was never worried as he was abducted by four men in San Diego during the 1969 baseball season.

“I knew nothing was going to happen to me,” Clemente said. “I knew for sure. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it. I just knew.”

Clemente was a notorious worrier and hypochondriac. But on that evening in San Diego, when he claims he was driven into the mountains and threatened with a gun, he felt a calm, as if he was protected.

The unusual story, which is absent even from some of the better Clemente biographies, is a strange tale. One that may be true, but may be a myth. We’ll examine that possibility later.

Roberto Clemente Abducted In San Diego

It was May of 1969, and the Pirates were in San Diego for a series against the expansion Padres. This was the first time Clemente and the Bucs had ever played in the city. The Padres were a first-year team with strange brown-and-yellow uniforms playing in what still seemed like a Triple-A town.

After the first game of the series, Clemente was apparently walking alone back from a restaurant with a box of chicken he was planning tom eat back at the team hotel. He was only 400 feet or so from his hotel room. That’s when he realized someone was following him.

Four men in a car rolled up on Clemente, the multiple Gold Glove Award winner, the perennial All-Star outfielder. The pride of Puerto Rico, and the enigmatic star who baffled his teammates and many fans in Pittsburgh.

One of the men pulled out a gun and ordered Roberto into a car. The five men, the four abductors and one of the greatest athletes in the world, sped off toward the southern California hills. A few moments later they were in an isolated area in the foothills. The men told Clemente to take off his clothes and hand over his belongings.

The loot included $250, Clemente’s All-Star ring, and the chicken. Standing in his underwear, Clemente started to think.

“This is where I figure they are going to shoot me and throw me in the woods,” Roberto told Pittsburgh sportswriter Bill Christine later. “They already had the pistol inside my mouth.”

Taking a chance, Clemente started talking to one of the men in Spanish. He explained that he was there to play baseball for the Pirates and that his teammates were counting on him. The men couldn’t believe that the nearly naked man standing in front of them was Roberto Clemente. The robbers returned his money, his All-Star Game ring, Clemente’s MLB Players’ Association ID card, and his clothes.

Following what must have been an uncomfortable ride back to downtown San Diego, Clemente was released and popped out of the car, not a scratch on his body. That’s when he felt the car following him again.

One of the robbers rolled down a window, and handed the bag of fried chicken to Clemente and drove away.

By August of 1970, Clemente was telling the story, which ended up as an item in a catch-all column in an edition of Sports Illustrated.

For some reason, Clemente did not report the incident to the police. He apparently did tell one of his coaches and manager Larry Shepherd. He also confided in general manager Joe Brown, who respected his star’s wishes and did not publicize the incident.

Did It Really Happen?

But why did Clemente not tell authorities? Why did he only tell the story the following year, in August to reporters in Pittsburgh before a series at home? Subsequently, The Sporting News ran a story on it. (Embedded below).

From The Sporting News, August 22, 1970

The reason some think Clemente fabricated the story is the history Roberto had with stories. At various points in his career, the outfielder told tales to get himself out of playing with ailments. Or he made up things to make it seem like he was under stress. Some teammates called him “Undertaker Bob” because the batting champion complained about every ache and pain.

But that doesn’t mean the near kidnapping in San Diego didn’t happen. It just means it sounds fantastic.

Let’s just be happy Clemente got back safe, and he had that chicken. And let’s be thankful that we got to watch Clemente play for a few more years.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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Michael P Wright
Michael P Wright
Reply to  Dan Holmes
2 years ago

Fascinating article. What happened to the chicken?