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Clemente Was One for the Books

New biography humanizes Pirates great

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I'm too young to remember Roberto Clemente. I mean to really remember him. I "remember" his greatness in the same way I "remember" the Immaculate Reception — filtered through the recollections of family members, through interviews and film clips and writers who watched him play. So I recently read with great interest David Maraniss' book, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero.

Clemente's humanitarian efforts speak volumes about the man … and his stats speak for themselves. He posted batting averages of .314, .351, .312, .320, .339, .329, .317 and .357, winning four batting titles and one MVP award. But you can't measure a great athlete merely by his stats: Like Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, you just had to see Clemente play.

Everybody who had the chance raves about Clemente's agility, grace and strength. He had the best arm anybody ever saw. As a hitter, Clemente's ability to uncork violent line drives drove one Dodger pitcher to retire early for fear of being decapitated; he said he would watch Clemente approaching the batter's box and shudder.

Maraniss brings Clemente and his times to life, showing Clemente's weaknesses and insecurities. Shining a light on Clemente in all his humanity doesn't diminish his greatness — it enhances it.

Maraniss debunks a few myths of the Clemente legend, like the story that Pirates general manager Branch Rickey told Roberto that he'd be a superstar after their first meeting. In fact, Rickey's memos opined that Clemente lacked "adventure" on the base paths and that he was timid in the field. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Clemente routinely threw out base-runners from every spot in the right field.

What Maraniss does best is vividly recreate the time and place, as well as the great plays. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier only eight years before Clemente first set foot on the grass of Forbes Field. The country was still racially divided, especially in the South, where the team held spring training: Restaurants, swimming pools, hotels and beaches were still segregated. Clemente was forced to confront racism, which prevented him and other players of color from socializing with their white teammates. It was all new to him.

Despite it all, Pittsburgh fans followed Bob Prince's lead and embraced Clemente. I wonder how that might have turned out if he had been just an ordinary player and not, in the Gunner's words, "the greatest right fielder to ever play the game"?

Clemente was also prone to fits of pique, sometimes seeing stereotyping where it wasn't. During an interview with Sam Nover later in his career, Clemente discussed his first spring training and said, "These people never knew anything about me, but they knew I was Puerto Rican, and as soon as I get to camp they call me a Puerto Rican hot dog." Maraniss culled through every Florida paper in 1955 from before spring training opened until the team came to Pittsburgh, but there was no story or headline where Clemente was called a hot dog. Clemente often perceived such slights, Maraniss writes, though they "were mostly imagined … for the very purpose of stirring passion."

These days, we're always hearing athletes talk about being disrespected. They rarely, if ever, are speaking about the level of adversity that Clemente and his peers faced. Even so, Clemente's resentment could make him appear aloof and difficult. As Maraniss says, "[P]ride, shyness, culture, language, preoccupation with his physical condition, anger over being underappreciated … could make Clemente seem guarded and at times unapproachable."

In this too, Clemente was much like modern athletes. Stardom, as presently constituted, separates us so thoroughly from celebrities that it creates an almost hostile atmosphere.

But for those who knew him, Clemente was generous with both his time and affection. Until his marriage, Roberto Clemente was a fixture in Schenley Heights, where he lived for many seasons with the Garland family. He was part of the fabric of the community there. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds, well, familiarity. It puts a human face on celebrities. Perhaps that's just part of why Clemente is so beloved here and in Puerto Rico.

As sorry as I am that I didn't see the Immaculate Reception — only a few people actually did — I'm exponentially more sorry that I didn't really get to see Clemente.

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