CRANBERRY TWP — Jim O'Friel remembers the first time he saw his hero.
It was 1955, and a 12-year-old O'Friel was sitting with his mother watching the Pittsburgh Pirates. In an era when televised games were few and O'Friel relished the opportunity to watch his favorite team play.
Then, the young rookie strode onto the screen and up to home plate, the black and white broadcast illuminating O'Friel's living room. He doesn't remember what happened during the at-bat, but he remembers the first impression he had of the man.
“Just from my perception of how he stood at the plate, how he swung the bat, how he handled himself, I said, 'Mom, this guy is going to be a superstar someday,'” O'Friel recalled.
That was the first time O'Friel saw Roberto Clemente, but it wasn't the last. Over the next few decades, O'Friel would take every chance he could to see the Puerto Rican-born player who would go on to fulfill young O'Friel's prophecy.
Now 75, O'Friel has never forgotten Clemente's life, even penning poems for the baseball star after his death in a plane crash in 1972. Copies of those poems are now housed in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., capping a lifetime of admiration for O'Friel.
A MAN OF GRACE
O'Friel, who has lived in Cranberry Township since the 1970s, grew up in Forrest Hills, and recalls days of going to Forbes Field to see the Pirates play.
He, his brother and friends would spend lazy Saturday afternoons at the ballpark, lingering around the field waiting for players to leave. The hope was to get an autograph from one of their favorites.
One afternoon, O'Friel recalls seeing Clemente stride out of the locker room in right field and head toward where O'Friel and his crew were waiting, a suit jacket draped over his shoulder. Clemente placed the jacket in the dugout and began signing autographs and talking to the children. In the excitement, O'Friel's brother accidentally stepped on the jacket, causing Clemente to react.
“Roberto went nuts on him in Spanish,” O'Friel said. “Nobody had a clue what he was saying, but we knew it wasn't good.”
Still, it was the moments after that encounter that solidified O'Friel's appreciation and respect for Clemente.
“He signed an autograph for everyone, even my brother,” he recalled. “That's where that grace comes in.”
GROWING IN STATURE
Time passed, and O'Friel continued to follow the Pirates, but mostly to see Clemente, who he said “got to the point where he was bigger than the Pirates were.”
“Just seeing Clemente walking out to take his position was worth the price of a ticket,” O'Friel said. “Nobody carried themselves like Roberto did.”
In his 18th season in Pittsburgh, Clemente was in the prime of his career. He'd finish with 240 homeruns and a .317 lifetime batting average. He also finished with 3,000 hits — a feat he essentially completed twice.
O'Friel recalls being in the stands on Sept. 29, 1972, when Clemente hit what appeared to be his 3,000th hit against the New York Mets.
O'Friel and some friends from work had somehow scored tickets in the second row behind home plate, and watched as Clemente hit a hard shot to the second baseman. The ball bobbled, Clemente reached first base and “everybody stood up and cheered,” O'Friel said.
However, officials ruled the play an error, leaving Clemente one hit shy after a 1-0 loss.
O'Friel wasn't going to miss history repeating itself, however, and bought tickets for his family to the Sept. 30 game. They sat in left center field as Clemente hit a line drive for his 3,000th — and final — hit.
“It was a day I'll never forget,” O'Friel said.
A MOMENT OF INSPIRATION
Almost exactly three months later, Clemente was on his way to Nicaragua, which had been recently hit by a massive earthquake. A noted humanitarian, he was taking aid and supplies to victims there when the plane carrying him and four others crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
O'Friel was asleep on New Year's Day 1973 when he was awoken by his wife. She told him the bad news, which he said he still has a hard time believing is true.
A few weeks later, he sat in his office at U.S. Steel, where he worked, when something struck him.
“I honestly don't know what inspired me,” he said. “I just thought so much of the guy.”
He took a piece of paper and pen from his desk and began writing, the words flowing. About 30 minutes later, he found he had written a poem — titled simply “Roberto Clemente.”
“I thought, 'That looks good, I'll try to write another one,'” he said.
Feeling that the first title was less than exciting, the second piece of prose was titled “The Great One,” borrowed from longtime Pirates' announcer Bob Prince's description of Clemente. There were no edits, no rewrites and no second guessing the words.
In 45 minutes, O'Friel had written two poems — the first of his life.
“I just wrote what came out of my mind,” he said.
The poems were published in newspapers in Pittsburgh, and O'Friel shared them with his wife and some close friends. However, he said he wasn't interested in showing them off, as he believed them to be “a bit academic.”
“It wasn't like I was Shakespeare or anything like that,” he said with a laugh.
According to his son, Robert O'Friel, they're the only two poems Jim O'Friel has written.
“He's not the type to write poetry,” Robert O'Friel said, adding that he was shocked to learn of the poems.
Robert O'Friel said he was struck by the emotion his father must have felt to put pen to paper and do something he had never done. However, he said knowing his dad's lifelong admiration for Clemente, it wasn't that surprising.
“(Clemente) was truly his hero,” he said.
CALL FOR THE HALL
In recent years, the poems have hung on the walls of O'Friel's home office, surrounded by Clemente memorabilia.
“Every now and then, I read them and I get a little emotional over it,” the now-retired O'Friel said.
He often thought about sending those words he wrote decades ago to the Baseball Hall of Fame — but something always came up.
That was the case until last year, when O'Friel and his wife, Arlene, made a trip to visit the hall with his brother. He said it never crossed his mind to take the poems with him, but as he stood on the second floor of the building, looking over exhibits, he felt regret at a missed opportunity.
That was until he noticed a well-dress man, John Odell, who he would later learn was curator of history and research for the museum. O'Friel introduced himself and shared his story, and asked if there would be interest for his poems. The immediate answer was “yes.”
O'Friel sent copies of his work, and on Oct. 3 received a letter from the hall informing him that the poems would be placed in the hall's poetry file. O'Friel said he believed the encounter was a matter of the “right place, right time.”
“It just happened,” he said. “It was meant to be.”
Having the poems in the hall alongside the memorials to Clemente “is one of the three greatest accomplishments of my life,” O'Friel said.
It's also something he thinks about each day — that, and the memories of Clemente, who served as a hero to him in life and death.
“He was an incredible person,” he said.