When Topps released the last of its regular-issue Roberto Clemente baseball cards, the one shown here from 1973, they may have had the benefit of hindsight to help them in choosing the right image.1973-Topps-Roberto-Clemente

Clemente appears to be confused, caught between a lunge and a checked swing, basked in the twilight of day and his career, warm sun on one side of his body and cold shadow on the other. The best of his diamond feats were surely behind him, but he still wanted to do a bit more.

Just months before the first wax packs hit shelves in the late winter of 1973, Clemente was killed in a plane crash en route to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

The tragedy cemented his legacy as a selfless humanitarian and boosted his status as a player even higher than it already was.

In truth1963-Fleer-Roberto-Clemente, Roberto Clemente didn’t need much help in achieving “legendary” status, as his 18 years in the Big Leagues left him with 240 home runs, a .317 batting average, the 1966 NL MVP award, and exactly 3000 hits.

But Clemente still had more to do.

The Pirates had won the World Series in 1971 but couldn’t quite overcome the budding Big Red Machine in the NLCS the next season. And, though Clemente played just 102 games, he did hit .312 with 10 dingers and was part of Pittsburgh’s heart in 1972.

They were on the verge, again, and had big plans for 1973.

Instead, they finished under .500 and would have to wait until the end of the decade when Willie Stargell was an old man before they made it back to the Series.

Clemente would have turned 39 in 1973 and might have played a couple more seasons, but the clock was clearly running out on his Hall of Fame career.

There could have been a few more hits, maybe a handful of homers, perhaps another trophy.

What the baseball world really lost on that runway in Puerto Rico, though, was the chance to say goodbye to Roberto, and the chance to talk to him in retirement, and the chance to see him grow old. Could it be that he would, even now, be enjoying a kind of elder-statesman status at the elbow of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays?1955-Topps-Roberto-Clemente


As for Topps’ final Clemente pasteboard, that foreboding image is made all the more eerie by the timing of Clemente’s death and the card’s release. It seems likely that Topps would have had their Series 1 photos set in stone by the time news of the dark plane crash broke.

Either way, the somber mood on #50 of the 1973 Topps set is a fitting final cardboard tribute to an all-time great.

And, if you want a dose of “Bob” in sunnier times, Topps — and Fleer — captured all of his seasons in their regular-issue cards.

Enjoy the show below.

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