In late June, major league umpire John Tumpane, a 34 year-old Chicago native, was crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge after an afternoon run and lunch. He was scheduled to umpire a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Rays at PNC Park that evening.
As he crossed the bridge, he noticed that a young woman had climbed over the railing and was looking down into the waters of the Allegheny river. When Tumpane stopped and asked what she was doing, she told him that she wanted to get a better look at the river. But it was clear to Tumpane that she was getting ready to jump from the bridge.
To save her life, he reached over the railing, grabbed her arm, and kept her from leaping into the river. Others crossing the bridge helped Tumpane hold onto the woman until a rescue team arrived to pull her to safety. The next night, fans at PNC Park gave Tumpane a standing ovation for his act of heroism.
With all of its bridges, Pittsburgh has a long and tragic history of jumpers. When I was growing up, my buddies and I, on a dare, would head out to the city morgue to view the latest body pulled from the river. In those days, drowned bodies, if they had no identification on them, were placed behind a glass partition at the morgue for public viewing in the hope that someone would find a missing friend or relative.
I had my own close encounter with a jumper when I was just out of high school and walking home from my job as a stock boy at Gimbels department store. As I crossed the Tenth Street bridge, I noticed a boat circling in the Monongahela river as two men dragged thick lines in the water. When I went over to the railing , I looked down just in time to see the men pull the body of a young man, about my age, to the river’s surface.
While seeing the drowned body was my most harrowing experience on a Pittsburgh bridge, my happiest crossings have been on my way to Pirates games over the Roberto Clemente bridge. My wife Anita and I have been crossing the Clemente bridge with our kids and grandkids since PNC Park first opened in 2001. While the Pirates usually put me in a grumpy mood by losing, Anita has kept the Peterson bunch happy by stuffing them with hots dogs and pierogis, and lavishing them with Pirates regalia at the souvenir shop.
In late 1998, when the Pirates announced that they were going to build a new ball park, fans hoped that it would be named in honor of Roberto Clemente. A revered figure in Pittsburgh, Clemente had died tragically in 1972, on New Years Eve, when a cargo plane loaded with supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed into the Atlantic ocean after taking off from an airfield in Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never found.
Pirate fans were bitterly disappointed when PNC Bank paid $30 million for the naming rights to the new ball park. Their consolation, however, came on April 7, 1999 when a ceremony was held to break ground for the construction of PNC Park. At that ceremony, the bridge that would become the main artery to the new ball park was named after Roberto Clemente. On April 9, 2001, when fans poured over the Clemente bridge for the opening of PNC Park, the first sight that greeted them was the statue honoring Roberto Clemente that had been moved from Three Rivers Stadium.
Every season baseball fans in Pittsburgh cross the Roberto Clemente bridge to view games at a ball park praised as one of the most beautiful in America. How fitting and moving that an umpire crossing the Clemente bridge, named in honor of a ball player who died while trying to save the lives of others, would reach out and save the life of a young woman. So many have lost their lives in Pittsburgh rivers, but this time a life was saved on a bridge that celebrates one of baseball’s greatest players and true heroes.
Reading Baseball is a series of stories and commentaries by Richard “Pete” Peterson co-author, with his son Stephen, of “The Slide: Leyland, Bonds and the Star-Crossed Pittsburgh Pirates” and the editor of “The St. Louis Baseball Reader.”