Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I became a Pirates fan when I moved from Canada to Pittsburgh in 1971 as a small boy with my family. I don’t remember much of Roberto Clemente, but I remember how huge he was in the city. Willie Stargell was my favorite Pirate. Still, I remember when Clemente died on New Year’s Eve, 1972, and what a shock it was to the world, to the baseball community, and to Pittsburgh, and what a sense of loss it brought.
Maraniss writes a pretty good book about Clemente. It’s not perfect, but the highlights are well written and one learns a lot about the man. Coming from Puerto Rico up to Montreal, in the minors, around 1954 was a huge shock for him, and then when the Pirates drafted him from the minors in 1955, it continued to be a culture shock for him, not only as a Latino player, but as a black Latino player. Since Spring Training was in Florida, Clemente was exposed first hand to Jim Crowe laws and couldn’t stay with the team, eat with the team, do anything but stay in the “colored” sections of towns and play ball. He wasn’t an immediate star, but he was obviously talented. He had a rocket for an arm and played a mean right field. He could hit fairly well, and with some power. He was primed for stardom.
By the time 1960 rolled around, the Pirates had risen from mediocre to National League champs, but they had to play the dreaded Yankees (with Mantle and Maris) in the World Series. And NY bombed Pittsburgh in three games by huge margins. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh won three games too, setting up a seventh and deciding game. The game was tied going into the ninth inning. Finally, at the end of the ninth inning, Bill Mazeroski hit a home run out of the park in one of the most famous moments in Pittsburgh sports history, winning the Series for the Pirates. It was the “shot heard round the world,” and to this day, is probably the most readily remembered World Series home run. For the Series, Clemente hit safely in every game.
Now my complaint with the author comes into play. He basically skips entire seasons after that Series. The 1967 season isn’t even mentioned, and Clemente was the 1966 National League MVP. You’d think Maraniss would want to follow up on that. Also, while we learn about Clemente’s tempestuous relationship with the press, who really never truly understood him, we don’t get as much on his relationship with the team, such as his manager Danny Murtaugh. It would have been nice to read more about their interactions.
Finally, we come to another good chapter – the one on the 1971 World Series against Baltimore, a team with four 20 game winning pitchers. By this time, Clemente was the old man on the team, but he hit safely in all seven games of this Series too, and was named Series MVP as Pittsburgh won another World Series.
In all, Clemente finished his career with a .317 batting average, 3000 hits, four N.L. batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, the 1966 National League MVP, the 1971 World Series MVP, and was the first Latino elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
At the end of 1972, there was a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, a country where Clemente had just managed the Puerto Rican national team in a playoffs. He was determined to help the people and helped gather over $100,000 and hundreds of tons of supplies to take to Nicaragua for disaster relief. Unfortunately, he put his trust in a shady character who had a plane he contracted out. This guy had 66 FAA violations and couldn’t even fly the plane, even though he was the co-pilot. The pilot had 12 violations and was exhausted from a trip he had just taken. Additionally, the plane was in bad shape and had been wrecked just two weeks before. Finally, it was overloaded by something like 4,500 pounds. It could barely lift off the ground. Nonetheless, Clemente said goodbye to his wife and three boys, took off, and never made it, as the planed crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff, smashing everything to smithereens. His body was never found.
Roberto Clemente was the pride of the Latino world, could have ruled Puerto Rico, was much loved by kids around the world, who he related to quite well, and had millions of fans everywhere. While he didn’t always get along with the press, they decided to do something that had only been done once before – bypass the five year minimum requirement of being away from baseball for election into the Baseball Hall of Fame (the other player was Lou Gehrig), and he was elected 11 weeks after his death.
It’s a good book, even though it does leave details out. (Why did Clemente give one of his Silver Slugger awards to announcer Bob Prince?) It’s well researched and documented and it sheds light on one of the greatest athletes of our time. Clemente will never be forgotten, and I certainly recommend this book.