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.
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation in the book is learning that sportswriters often quoted Clemente phonetically in print. His accent and grammatical struggles were spelled out for all to see, and it understandably irritated and angered him. In what may be only of interest to me, it wasn't just white journalists in major publications that did this. He was often quoted phonetically by black journalists writing for, at that time, predominantly African-American readers. It's hard not to see malice in this practice decades later. It's also hard to believe that journalists who were themselves frozen out of the larger, more prestigious papers would turn and do something like this with another minority.
In addition to following Clemente's growth as a player who would win two World Championships with the Pittsburgh Pirates and collect 3,000 hits, we get glimpses into a man for whom baseball was just the beginning. He didn't connect well with sportswriters and sometimes with teammates, but he did have a special connection with fans. He often went beyond signing autographs for fans but was known to invite them to his home in Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico.
He was also someone who had ambitions beyond baseball, using the fame that sometimes irritated him as a platform to lift up the disadvantaged. In fact, it was this passion that led to his untimely death at age 38. During the offseason, shortly after collecting his 3,000th and final hit, a devastating earthquake rocked the Caribbean nation of Nicaragua. Clemente led efforts to collect money and supplies for the injured and homeless. Multiple planes of supplies collected by Clemente were delivered, but word got back to the superstar outfielder that government greed and corruption prevented the supplies from being delivered.
Clemente was outraged by these reports and as a man who had achieved fame and status in this region of the world beyond his stardom in the United States, he decided to try and use that fame as leverage to ensure the next plane load of supplies got to its intended recipients. It is in these final chapters that Maraniss' reporting and writing is the most affecting. We learn of the staggering number of critical errors made by the disreputable, incompetent company he turned to in order to carry him and those supplies on this final trip. On New Year's Eve, 1972, Clemente's plane crashed and all aboard perished.
He is one of only two major league baseball players who didn't have to wait the standard five years to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A special motion was made among the Baseball Writers of America — the organization that elects players to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY — and Clemente joined Lou Gehrig as the only players immediately elected. Clemente's on-field accomplishments were a shoo-in for enshrinement even before his death in the service of others. Tragically, he didn't live to receive the honor.
Beyond the tragedy of the final weeks of his life, Maraniss' text reads like a pleasant baseball box score. He tells of big games in which Clemente often performed amazing feats. He lets us see how the player could sometimes be sullen and small while at other times being gregarious and generous. Maraniss paints a portrait of a complicated, layered individual. What he doesn't quite paint is a man who measures up to the martyr legacy often conferred upon him. I'm not sure why I feel a disconnect, but it's there. Maybe it's Maraniss. Maybe it's me.