Roberto Clemente: from right field to mythic stature

A new biography by David Maraniss examines the man and his heroic reputation.

Since his death on the last day of 1972, Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente has had his name put on 40 public schools, two hospitals, and 200-plus public parks and ball fields from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh.

In his native Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean, Clemente long ago passed from man to myth.

There is no question about his enormous talent. During his 18-year career in the major leagues, Clemente racked up 3,000 hits, won four batting titles, an MVP award, played on two World Series winners, and garnered an eye-popping 12 Gold Gloves. Clemente was still a productive player when he died at age 38, shortly after leading the Pirates into the National League playoffs.

Yet for all of those glories, he was hardly the dominant player of his era. It remains arguable whether he was even the best right fielder in the National League - Hall of Fame sluggers Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron roamed right field for rival clubs during Clemente's prime - though there was never an argument over who had the best arm. Clemente did; no one else was even close. And, while other players and fans respected Clemente, he spent his career in Pittsburgh, a small media market, and never received the coverage enjoyed by Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or even, to a lesser degree, Ernie Banks.

Through a combination of factors - his tragic, premature death while hauling relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua; the adoration of his Puerto Rican fans; and growing appreciation for his marvelous talents late in his career - Clemente's stature has soared during the past three decades. As Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss demonstrates in his thoroughly entertaining new biography, Clemente, this was a baseball hero worthy of the title.

Indeed, reading Clemente's life story and subsequent role as a blend of superstar and mythic figure, he summons comparisons not so much with other athletes as with the late John Lennon. The adoration of their fans was similarly intense and so were many aspects of their personalities: prickly and difficult one moment, sensitive and tender the next.

But Lennon, it is safe to say, never had the extensive list of health ailments and remedies Robert Clemente did. Clemente was acutely sensitive to any and all changes in his body and - beyond the ravages of relentless Major League competition - faced neck and back problems stemming from a 1954 auto accident.

Reporters labeled him a hypochondriac, a tag the fiercely proud Clemente resented. (As Maraniss demonstrates over and again, Clemente fueled his competitive fires with slights perceived and real alike.) Teammates often needled Clemente, teasing him that the worse off he claimed to be, the more hits he would collect that day.

For all the talk of Clemente's health (by himself and others), he rarely missed games and wound up establishing a franchise record for number of games played.

Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues, guided Clemente's early career. As a black Puerto Rican who spoke little English, Clemente was shell-shocked when he first encountered American racism at baseball training camps in Florida.

But Clemente was not one to back down, even before becoming a superstar. During bus trips through Florida towns, black players were forced to ask white teammates to bring them food from restaurants that would not serve blacks. Clemente found asking teammates for food demeaning and, as Maraniss writes, told "his black teammates that anyone who begged for food would have to fight him to get it."

As Clemente's career wore on, he became an ardent admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. During that span, his passion for helping poor people, particularly in Puerto Rico, also took on greater urgency.

The most illuminating aspect of Maraniss's book is his detailed examination of the circumstances leading up to Clemente's death. The Nicaraguan earthquake occurred just weeks after the baseball star had been in Managua managing a national amateur team from Puerto Rico. Clemente quickly mobilized a relief effort.

The supply plane he leased, a battered DC-7 with faltering engines whose owner had been censured earlier by aviation officials, was piloted by a burned-out pilot of dubious reputation. Taking off from San Juan's airport, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the wobbly aircraft barely made it over the water before crashing.

Eleven weeks later, Clemente, following Lou Gehrig, became the second player voted into the Hall of Fame without the requisite five-year waiting period. And his legend rocketed even faster.

"That night on which Roberto Clemente left us physically," one writer later observed, "his immortality began."

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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