I just finished reading “Clemente: the Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” by David Maraniss. He has written prior sports books on Vince Lombardi and the 1960 Summer Olympics, as well as a masterful biography of Bill Clinton: “First In His Class.”
This book provides just as marvelous insights into the character and career of Roberto Clemente, the 18 year veteran of the Pittsburgh Pirates and member of the Hall of Fame.
Clemente’s career (1955-1972) spanned some of the most interesting times in Major League baseball’s history–from the “glory days” of 1950′s baseball, when the game reigned supreme as the national pastime until the 1970′s with expansion and multi-purpose stadiums.
Clemente was at the center of the two most important events in the development of the sport. As a black player, born and raised in Puerto Rico, he came into the league just eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He was also a victim of the reserve clause, the baseball policy that ensured that management had total control over a player’s contract for life. (Clemente was signed on the promise of playing in New York with the Dodgers, yet he was hidden in the minor leagues for a year before being assigned to play for Pittsburgh.)
In the end, Clemente helped mentor Latino players and helped to honor his heritage by using Spanish to speak directly to his parents and Puerto Rican fans in his live post-World Series championship interview in 1971. As a player representative for the Pirates, he helped authorize the union’s support for Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause–the first breach of the dam that finally broke in the mid-1970′s and resulted in free agency for players.
While the book is admirable on documenting his undeniable talent and also focuses on some interesting quirks in his personality (his interest and talent in chiropractic healing, for instance) the book is at its best when it shines a light on Clemente’s role in fighting the discrimination faced by Latino ballplayers, as well as his desire to help those less fortunate, especially children.
Clemente was undeniably one of baseball’s all-time best players (.312 career average, 3,000 hits 18 Gold Gloves for fielding), yet he was forced to deal with sportswriters questioning his commitment to playing hurt and writing his post-game quotes in racist phonetic approximations of broken English (despite his perfectly understandable English language skills.)
Like so many athletes who question the status quo of professional sports and its folkways, he was tarred with the brush of hothead, malingerer. Yet his personality away from the field was one of incredible kindness and service to the community. One would never know this from merely reading the press clippings.
The last part of the book deals with his untimely passing, dying in a plane crash on New Years Eve 1972, attempting to get food and medical supplies to the people of Nicaragua suffering from a massive earthquake that occured on Christmas Day. The reporting on this section is extraordinary. I had always assumed that the plane went down in Nicaragua. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff from San Juan airport–the victim of a plane that was unsafe, cargo that was stuffed to the gills and unbalanced and a crew that was inexperienced and sleep deprived.
What was also fascinating was the background on why Clemente was determined to accompany the aid mission. Dictator Somoza and his family were stealing most of the aid coming in to the country and Clemente reasoned that his superstar status would allow his aid to remain unplundered if he was there in person. What allowed Somoza to steal the supplies was the personal backing of Richard Nixon, who continued to see Communists behind every palm tree in the region. American troops guarded the Somozas and allowed the local police and army to not only steal supplies, but also shoot their own countrymen and women–most struggling to survive from medical injuries aggravated by dehydration and starvation.
The book’s thesis is elegantly stated at the end of the book. Not only was Clemente the last of the heroes from the glory days of baseball’s history, he was a fundamentally different kind of hero. Baseball heroes generally bask in the light of a pastoral nostalgia–back when dappled sunlight played off the rural fields and city streets, illuminating fathers and sons playing catch during a simpler time.
Clemente was the only hero whose influence was on the future. He alone represented what we wanted to become: a more diverse society that treated its players with respect, in its treatment of racial and linguistic differences, as well as a more progressive labor policy. Clemente dreamed of a future where children of all races and nationalities would be able to compete in athletics, transcending the problems of racism, poverty and poor health. His dream of a sports city for children in Puerto Rico has been brought to life by the diligent work of his surviving family. The dream of a more universal solution remains, perhaps out of our reach without the fame, vision and talent of Roberto Clemente.