As a lifelong baseball fan, I knew Roberto Clemente was a great player who died too young, and that's about all I knew. Well, that and Clemente is still, years later, spoken of in reverential terms in and out of baseball circles. He's more than just a guy who played some good baseball. He's become immortal, a legend, but I didn't really know why. That's why I turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss' Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero. I don't know who let who down, but at the end of the book, I found myself... disappointed.
Clemente follows Roberto from his humble beginnings in Carolina, Puerto Rico and traces his rise through the Caribbean winter leagues through his signing with the Dodgers' minor league system to the beginning of his major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he would spend the duration of his professional career.
As he develops as a major league player, Maraniss passes on some interesting facts about Clemente as a ballplayer and a person, but there are no stunning insights into the man himself. We find out he didn't care much for criticism, from within the Pirates organization or from sportswriters. We learn about a car accident in his teenage years, the effects of which caused him back trouble throughout his life. Those back troubles caused him to complain of being hurt often and therefore led some to criticize him as a malingerer or a hypochondriac.
Clemente had the confidence and ego of a superstar athlete, and he flashed it even before he'd achieved status as a superstar on the baseball diamond. He wasn't afraid to confront a sportswriter if he felt he'd been mistreated or not properly appreciated in the press and had a healthy disdain for many in the journalism profession. In his dealings with the media and even with teammates, he could be distant and aloof and sometimes with good reason.
We take for granted the number of star players from Latin America in today's baseball. Just as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball for African-American players, someone had to break the barrier for Latin ballplayers. Clemente wasn't the first, but he was among the earlier and was one of the first to become a star of the game. He wasn't just a Puerto Rican player, he was a black Puerto Rican player who was not as comfortable with English as he was Spanish. Assimilation into American and baseball culture was incredibly difficult and some of the less pleasant experiences, including those in the Jim Crow South, fed Clemente's distrust and aloofness.