One day in 1964 she left the bank to go to the drugstore across the street when Clemente, who was driving by, spotted her, according to David Maraniss’s biography “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” (2006).
He introduced himself to her inside the drugstore, but Ms. Zabala didn’t give him the time of day. Besides, her father was strict and kept her on a short leash.
Clemente, who was several years into his Hall of Fame career, pursued her by calling her friends and neighbors. She kept turning him down but eventually relented.
He told her that he was in a hurry to have a family because he was going to die young but that God had a plan for him, according to Duane Rieder, founder and executive director of the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. Mr. Rieder quoted her as saying, “I felt God’s plan for me was to assist Roberto.”
They were married on Nov. 14, 1964, in Carolina, where Roberto Clemente was born, just east of San Juan, with hundreds of people in attendance, including the governor and several of Clemente’s fellow ballplayers.
Clemente was killed just eight years later, and his widow stepped into the role of humanitarian.
Every year, she took an active part in choosing the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, an honor given since 1973 to the player who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
After Hurricane Harvey, she flew to Houston during the 2017 World Series to present the award to Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs’ first baseman, who was a cancer survivor and who had established a foundation to help children with the disease.
While in Houston, she took time out to volunteer at a food bank to help families recovering from the hurricane.