Pirate of the Caribbean

Thirty-five years ago this month, veteran right-fielder Roberto Clemente willed his Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. During a nationally televised postgame interview, Clemente bestowed a blessing on his three young sons and asked his parents in Puerto Rico for theirs. Clemente spoke English eloquently, but at this moment he spoke in his first language. “I had never heard anything in Spanish on TV,” Bronx resident Julio Pabon told the New York Times thirty years later. “To hear it that day was like an out-of-body experience.”

As David Maraniss affirms in his elegant new biography of Clemente, “It was one of the most memorable acts of his life, a simple moment that touched the souls of millions of people in the Spanish-speaking world.” Born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 1934, the youngest son of Luisa and Melchor Clemente, Roberto became a magnificent, charismatic ballplayer. He batted .317 with exactly 3,000 base hits over eighteen seasons-all with the Pirates. Clemente was among the few players in baseball history who could dominate a game from his outfield position, routinely throwing out runners who dared to test his arm. “Clemente was art, not science,” writes Maraniss. “Every time he strolled slowly to the batter’s box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one’s eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility.”

Clemente earned the stature of a prophet in Latin America, with fierce pride in his heritage, which only grew stronger, Maraniss says, when he encountered “color distinctions” on the mainland that were unknown on the island. As a young player, he helped lead the Pirates to victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. But when celebrations were held months later at country clubs and hotels near the team’s spring-training facility in Florida, Clemente and his few black and Latino teammates were excluded by the enduring customs of Jim Crow. In Pittsburgh and in cities throughout the National League, he remained “separated by culture, race, language, and group dynamics.” Sportswriters ridiculed his alleged hypochondria and his English syntax, rendered phonetically to enhance the comic effect. In response, Clemente developed a strong racial consciousness at a time when professional athletes were expected to refrain from social activism.

It was different in Puerto Rico, where Martin Luther King Jr. once met with Clemente. Clemente’s stature on the island was analogous to that enjoyed by King in many parts of the mainland. King “changed the whole system of the American style,” as Clemente put it, by giving voice to the voiceless. Throughout his career, the Pirate outfielder remained a champion of the underdog, a category that once included-strange as it sounds today-major leaguers themselves.

Baseball’s infamous “reserve clause” kept players from offering their services to franchises that hadn’t initially signed them or acquired them via trades-even after their contracts expired. When St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood refused to consent to his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, Clemente-the first Latino member of the Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Board-vocally supported him. The case carried strong racial overtones (Flood was black), but soon revealed broader issues of personal freedom and economic justice. Clemente’s advocacy made a difference in the Players Association’s decision to demand revisions to the reserve system. Until the mid-1970s, when a system of free agency was finally adopted, big leaguers often worked during the off-season in hardware and sporting-goods stores to make ends meet. No longer. The Pirates, a “small market” franchise whose fans are currently enduring their fourteenth consecutive losing season, would never have held on to Clemente for long had he been a free agent.

As one of those long-suffering Pirates fans, I can only enjoy the memories recharged by David Maraniss in this wonderful, if slightly incomplete, biography. My first Pirate hero, I confess, was Dick Stuart, a lumbering slugger whose fielding shortcomings at first base earned him the sobriquet “Dr. Strangeglove.” Stuart was traded to the Red Sox when I was a first grader, just before our family moved back to the East Coast. Summer evenings for the next decade were dominated by the voice of Pirates announcer Bob Prince-sometimes crackling, sometimes clear-broadcast across the miles by KDKA’s 50,000 watts. The colorful, volatile Prince (“not just the voice of the Pirates, he was in many ways their creator,” as Maraniss rightly explains) had a special affinity for Clemente, joyously narrating some of the all-time great outfield catches and throws. Prince also reveled in the raucously multicultural character of the Pirates in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Clemente and power-hitting left fielder Willie Stargell set a proud tone that resonated throughout urban America, if not always at the ticket office.

For those three years, the Pirates were dominant. In 1971, the year they beat the Orioles in the World Series, the Pirates also became the first club in major-league history with a starting lineup composed entirely of black and Latino athletes. The following season, they were three outs away from returning to the fall classic when the Cincinnati Reds rallied to win the deciding game of the National League Championship Series. It was the last game Roberto Clemente played.

After a devastating earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua, on December 23, 1972, Clemente immediately organized an extensive relief effort from Puerto Rico. When Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s guards began looting donations, Clemente-in his haste to arrange a New Year’s Eve flight so he could personally deliver supplies-chartered a DC-7 aircraft from a rogue pilot whose only apparent skill was skirting FAA regulations. Just seconds after takeoff, the plane went into the ocean. Maraniss’s painfully detailed account of Clemente’s final hours is truly terrible to read.

Three days after the crash, my father and I attended a memorial Mass for Clemente at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, where it seemed we made up half the “Anglo” contingent (along with Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and New York Mayor John V. Lindsay) amid a packed congregation of Puerto Ricans united in grief and remembrance. Roberto Clemente was my hero as a person and as a Pirate, but until then I had little understanding of his true stature, both in his homeland and across Latin America. Maraniss makes that stature abundantly clear.

Maraniss’s skill at defining sports heroes as cultural icons was apparent in When Pride Still Mattered, his well-regarded 1999 biography of Vince Lombardi. Roberto Clemente is a more challenging subject. While Lombardi was the product of an immigrant devotional subculture, Clemente came from a place and a culture that remains largely overlooked in works of American history, even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. The growing movement for Major League Baseball to retire Clemente’s number 21 is deeply rooted in that history, movingly told by David Maraniss in Clemente.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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