David Maraniss' "Clemente"
Roberto Clemente was baseball’s first martyred saint. His life possessed the rare combination of baseball superstardom, genuine humanity unmatched since Christy Mathewson, and the tragic ending of a vibrant career like Lou Gehrig. To the Hispanic community Clemente was the first genuine superstar. To fans in Pittsburgh he was one of the main engines of two underdog World Series victories. To hundreds of sick kids in National League cities, he was the rare baseball player who answered pleas for a visit. To many women he was perhaps the most attractive player in the game, with a soft good looks and a chiseled physique. Finally, to baseball fans, he had the finest arm in the game, a beautiful swing and the speed to complement it all. In short, he was magnificent.
Faced with a subject like Clemente, it would have been easy for David Maraniss to produce several hundred pages of hagiography(*), expanding on the prior paragraph. That was exactly what I feared I would encounter in “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero”. The titled seemed to point me in that direction, but I found an evenhanded account of a great baseball player and honorable, but sometimes flawed human being.
Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who previously wrote biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi. His Clemente book provides us insights into a complex man who overcame language barriers, poverty and discrimination to become one of the great figures of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
Clemente was such a great baseball player that the BBWA waived the five year eligibility period and elected him to the Hall of Fame eleven weeks after his death. The only other player to receive this exception was Lou Gehrig. Maraniss shows us a man who believed in accomplishing even more off the filed than on it and who died tragically while living up to his ideals, delivering earthquake relief to Nicaragua in 1972.
The book faithfully covers the baseball highlights of Clemente’s life, including two World Series victories, World Series MVP award, National League MVP award, four batting titles, and twelve All Star selections. Both World Series are covered in detail, capturing the drama of Pittsburgh’s underdog wins, including Bill Mazeroski’s homer in 1960. For Clemente, the two World Series serve as near bookends of his 18 year career.
Clemente could be sullen and was prone to insomnia. At the bottom, he never believed he received ample credit for his accomplishments. He played through injuries, but was often criticized for being a hypochondriac because he sometimes hit better when his back was bothering him. The newspapers of the day mocked him by quoting him phonetically (“That’s how hard he hit that son-mo-gun”).
Where Clemente transcended baseball was in his desire to use his position to improve the lives of others. In addition to organizing the ill-fated relief mission to Nicaragua, Clemente visited children in hospitals of various National League cities. He supported Curt Flood in his attempt to assert his dignity in the face of the reserve clause. One overriding theme was his desire to establish a compound in Puerto Rico where children could channel their energies into sports, rather than street crime. This is a dream that his son Roberto Jr. has perpetuated through the RBI program.
Overall, this was an entertaining read and a must-have for any fan of Clemente.
(*) OK, I got carried away. A hagiography is a fawning biography of a saint
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