When I first started paying attention to big-time sports, almost 50 years ago, Roberto Clemente was one of the premier players in Major League Baseball. He didn’t hit as many home runs as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson did, and he didn’t steal a lot of bases, but his credentials were otherwise impeccable. He was always a great fielder, and he had one of the greatest arms in the history of baseball, able to throw a ball accurately from deepest right field in one of the deepest right fields in the major leagues at that time, Forbes Field, on a line to third base. Like many in that era his path to stardom wasn’t a particularly easy one, though. Not only was he black, but Hispanic, so he experienced discrimination because of his skin, but also had a hard time fitting in because of his language and culture. Latin players had played in the major leagues before black players, but not many before the 1950s. There had been a pitcher, Adolfo Luque, who won 27 games one year in the 1920’s for the Cincinnati Reds, never had a comparable season again, but stayed in the majors for a long time.
There wasn’t another until Hiram Bithorn, who had one excellent season as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs before hurting his arm and having to retire. As the 1950’s came, more Latin players began to arrive, as black players were also. These were the pioneers, and they had to endure a lot from both players and fans. A number of these first players were outstanding, though not all of them. When Branch Rickey, then with the Brroklyn Dodgers, decided to make the effort to end segregation in the major leagues, he looked for a very particular kind of player: a player not only talented and determined enough to succeed, but one who could take the abuse he’d be sure to get without striking back. He found Jackie Robinson, who was able to fulfill all those requirements. He may or may not have been the best player in the Negro Leagues at the time, but he was a good hitter and fielder, and particularly a good base stealer. He was able to take the abuse, sometimes virulent, and use it to motivate himself to excel, and not only paved the way for other black players to play in the majors, but helped make the Dodgers one of the dominant teams of the time. Had they won about 30 more games, they could possibly have won 10 straight pennants, which would have been unprecedented. As it was, they won 5 in 9 years, which isn’t exactly shabby.
Clemente originally signed with them, hoping to play for them because they had not only signed Robinson, but also Sandy Amoros, another Latin player. But the Dodgers didn’t think he was good enough to protect, so the Pirates acquired his contract.
It took Clemente a little while to put his whole game together. He was always a good fielder, though he sometimes threw the ball off-line or too far, but it took him time to learn how to hit well, for which he gave credit to the coaching of George Sisler, who had been a great hitter in the 1920s. The first year that he hit really consistently well was 1960, and his season helped the Pirates win the pennant for the first time since 1927, and to win the World Series too, beating the New York Yankees, which also made a number of people happy. Clemente didn’t dominate the World Series, though he hit safely in every game, but was one of a number of players who contributed. From that time on, though, he became increasingly important to the Pirates, though they didn’t become a really good team again for several years.
Clemente was at once humble and proud. He was proud of the family and country he came from, and proud of his own abilities, which he thought people often didn’t give him enough credit for. He didn’t often have major injuries, but early in his career he had hurt his back, producing a disc which slipped out of place sometimes, and which he had to put back in place, either himself, or with the aid of a chiropractor. This affected his hitting, and along with the distant walls of Forbes Field, probably prevented him from hitting as many home runs as the other elite players of the time. But between those problems, and the teaching of George Sisler, he decided to hit line drives, and get on base. He could hit home runs, and long ones, but he rarely did it with much consistency. But as popular as home run hitters are, players don’t have to hit them to be valuable to their teams. Offensively, those who keep innings alive and score runs are as important as those who drive them in, and home runs are also not necessary (though helpful) for driving in runs.
And Clemente was also a brilliant fielder, with a powerful, and eventually accurate, throwing arm. He influenced the World Series in 1960 with a throw he made from deep right field, which almost (but not quite) cut down a Yankee baserunner. The Yankees were cautious about running on him again in that series. That series was peculiar in that it went seven games, and in the three the Pirates lost, they were beaten badly. But this was a veteran team, and they were able to take losing in stride, and come back to play well the next game. Clemente was a veteran, but not yet as respected as he would become. He made his contribution, the Pirates won, but weren’t a good team again for several years. Several of their best players were injured the following year, or simply didn’t play well, and the team began rebuilding. By the mid-1960s it was becoming ready to contend again, and Clemente had a lot to do with that.
He had become an elite hitter, as he’d begun to be in 1960. The rest of his career he hit less than .300 only one season, and then .291, which would be a good season for most players. He finished his career having won four batting championships and 12 Golden Gloves (for excellence in fielding), and he’d become an influential player in the Pirate’s clubhouse, as well as in the larger world. His biographer found several instances where he treated fans better than most players would (and one where he didn’t, proving that he wasn’t a saint), and he spoke not only for the fans, but also for his fellow players, particlarly Latin players, and especially those from Puerto Rico. His biographer said that he particularly venerated Martin Luther King, not so much for his nonviolent approach to solving problems, but because he gave voice to the voiceless, speaking for those whom few wanted to listen to or know about. He tried to do the same himself, which was how he eventually met his death.
But before that time he was gaining more and more respect from his own team, major league baseball in general, and many fans. He helped his fellow players, telling them how they ought to behave, not only when they were playing, but in relation to fans. He helped Mateo Alou, a player who couldn’t hit the ball very far, become a good enough hitter to win at least one batting championship. And in the World Series of 1971 he really did dominate.
That was another series the Pirates weren’t supposed to win, though they were probably more talented than the 1960 team. They were also more diverse, with Willie Stargell playing the outfield, Dock Ellis pitching, and others. They were playing against the Baltimore Orioles, not the best hitting team, but a team that fielded and pitched brilliantly, and had four 20-game winners that year, something that hadn’t been seen in baseball since the 1920 Chicago White Sox. They were supposed to roll over the Pirates, and it looked like that was going to happen when the Pirates lost their first two games, at least one badly.
But they came back, and Clemente was in the middle of it, both hitting and fielding, and was MVP for the series, hitting .414 overall, and a solo home run in the final game to help Pittsburgh win in seven games, 2-1. The next season Pittsburgh went to the playoffs again, but weren’t as successful, losing thier first-round series. But Clemente had collected his 3,000th hit at the end of that season, a milestone which very few players ever reach.
Clemente had always felt he had to accomplish as much as he could as soon as he could, because he felt he would die young, in a plane crash. He pursued his wife aggressively because of that, and they had three children together. He adored his wife and children, and had them travel with him, not only during parts of some baseball seasons, but between seasons, taking them to South and Central America, as well as Europe. He was a handsome man, and told his father-in-law he could have many women, but only wanted one: his wife. He also cared about other people, and when he heard of the devastating earthquake that struck Nicaragua, including the capitol city of Managua, which he had visited and enjoyed, he was horrified.
He became more horrified when he heard that most of the aid that was being sent was being commandeered by the Somoza family. Anastasio Somoza was the head of state, and his family owned much of the country’s wealth. His son took the aid being sent to the country, and put it in warehouses, so that those who really needed it didn’t get it. Clemente decided to do something about it, and called for more contributions for the Nicaraguans, which he planned to fly to the country himself, to prevent the Somozas from stealing the cargo. The author makes clear that Clemente had unfortunately not done his homework when he arranged for a flight to ship the cargo. He picked a pilot who owned a DC-7 he didn’t know how to fly, and which was in poor condition. The rest of the flight crew were no more familiar with the plane than was the pilot, and the cargo hadn’t been packed well. The plane was also overloaded. Only one thing could happen in that situation: the plane crashed in the ocean, almost immediately after taking off from the airfield in Puerto Rico. Clemente must have been killed almost immediately.
Although I was sad to hear about his death at the time, it didn’t touch me the way it touched the many people who knew him. His wife, children and parents were dismayed, of course, but there were many others too. Friends from baseball, and just ordinary people whose lives Clemente had touched. There have been and are many great athletes in American sports, to say nothing of the rest of the world, but few great athletes are also great people. Clemente was. He had grown along with his baseball skills and his fame, until he had become an outstandin human being, and not just an athlete. Our culture reveres athletes for their athletic abilities, and doesn’t hold them to a standard commensurate with their gifts. Clemente was imperfect, but did hold himself to a high standard as a man. Many of his accomplishments were invisible to those who didn’t know him. His baseball records speak for themselves, but it has been individuals that have had to speak for him as a man. David Maraniss tracked many of them down to write this biography, which made me feel like crying when I read about his death and how the people who loved him reacted to it. It’s a book for baseball fans, as Maraniss is himself, but might be of interest to others too.