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An American story.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero By David Maraniss Simon & Schuster. 401 pages. $26.

On Mother's Day, I got to watch my beloved White Sox on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. Host and Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan sent greetings to Vera. I knew exactly who he was talking about: Vera Clemente, the widow of El Magnifico Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder from Carolina, Puerto Rico. I had just started reading David Maraniss's new biography about this mythical player.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maraniss spins a superb story about the first Latin American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Clemente won twelve consecutive Gold Glove awards for his prowess in the outfield and four batting titles, and was MVP of the 1971 World Series.

I had hopes that Maraniss's biography would be as good as his previous sports biography, When Pride Still Mattered.. A Life of Vince Lombardi. I was not disappointed.

Roberto Clemente was not the first Latin American to play the game, nor was he the first Puerto Rican. But he was the first Latin American to reach the pantheon of baseball in Cooperstown, New York.

Although Jackie Robinson had broken the color line seven years before Clemente was drafted, baseball was still suffering under the weight of segregation. When he arrived at the Pirates' 1955 spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, his team was split up. The white players lodged at the Bradford Hotel downtown while "Clemente and other black prospects were shuttled off to board in private homes in the historically black Dunbar Heights neighborhood across the railroad tracks on the east side of town," writes Maraniss. "Jim Crow segregation was everywhere: in the schools, gas stations, hotels, restaurants. The white players and their families relaxed at beaches and pools where black teammates could not go. ... If blacks wanted to watch the Pirates, they were penned in their own pavilion section of the bleachers at Terry Park. The bathrooms and water fountains at the ballpark were. labeled Whites and Colored."

Clemente was unhappy about the discrimination, to put it mildly. In a 1972 interview, he recalled his early days in Florida: "From the first day, I said to myself: 'I am the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated as a human being. I don't want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person that comes for a job.' Every person who comes for a job he should be treated like whites."

He didn't quite fit in around Pittsburgh, with its tight-knit black community and minuscule Caribbean population. As a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican, he said, "I am between worlds." He took great pride in being Puerto Rican and sent his wife to the island for the births of their children. But he was also proud to be an American. As Puerto Rican, he was an American citizen by birthright.

The press treated him as a bit of a novelty and for years wrote his quotes phonetically. After the 1961 All-Star game, the Associated Press quoted Clemente as saying: "I jus' try to sacrifice myself, so I get runner to third if I do, I feel good. But I get heet and Willie scores and I feel better than good." During the 1971 World Series, the New York Daily News quoted Clemente as saying: "Eef I have my good arm thee ball gets there a leetle quicker than he gets there."

Some players were no better. Pitcher Jim Brosnan wrote in Life magazine that "Clemente features a Latin American variety of showboating: 'Look at numero uno,' he seems to be saying."

Clemente did not make a good first impression upon his Pirates' manager, the famed Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson to the Dodgers. Rickey noted in a preseason memo that the right fielder looked good at the plate, but had poor running form, had probably never stolen a base in his life, and lacked adventure in the outfield. "So, we are stuck with him--stuck indeed, until such time as he can really help a major league club," Rickey wrote.

The Pirates were stuck with him for eighteen seasons. He was known for his consistency on the field and could hit just about any pitch. He cracked 3,000 hits, a feat matched by only eleven other people at the time. The Pirates won two World Series with his talent.

But statistics don't adequately convey his game. He could be graceful making his trademark basket catches. He could hurl powerful throws from right field to third, denying an extra base to a runner. He approached the plate like "a condemned man heading toward the electric chair," as the press joked. Clemente may have cringed at the stereotypes of the flashy Latin American player, but he did have his own unique style.

He had a unique style off the field, too. He visited sick kids in hospitals across the United States and the Caribbean and often spoke of his dream to build a sports city for poor kids in Puerto Rico.

"If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this Earth," he said.

This idealism eventually led him to Nicaragua in 1972. After a devastating earthquake shook that nation in December, Clemente, who had just been there in November, began a fundraising campaign in Puerto Rico. People donated more than $100,000 and tons of food to the relief effort.

Anastasio Somoza Debayle was in power in Managua and ordered his soldiers to lock up the international aid that was arriving at the airport in order to keep it for his kleptocratic government. When Clemente got wind of this, he became enraged and decided to deliver the aid himself. On December 31, 1972, the thirty-eight-year-old ball player boarded a broken-down plane that had no business flying. He and four others died several minutes after takeoff when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. His body was never recovered.

Maraniss loves baseball, and the book is a pleasure to read. I enjoyed finding out about men I think of as coaches--Yogi Berra, Joe Torre--when they were players. The era seems like a baseball fan's dream. But it's too easy to be nostalgic for a golden age of baseball. During the 1950s and 1960s, the league was still struggling with integration, not to mention the dominance of the owners.

And it's worthwhile to remember how much race is still a part of the game, after all these years. ESPN's Joe Morgan was asked if the booing that Barry Bonds has gotten from the bleachers as he surpassed Babe Ruth's home run record had anything to do with race. "Make no mistake about it," the retired second baseman responded. "We live in America, man. Race is a part of everything we do."

Baseball's true believers still worship Clemente. Ozzie Guillen, the Venezuelan manager who led the White Sox to a World Series victory last year, has a shrine to him in his house. Thanks to Maraniss, I understand more about this son of a cane worker who went on to become one of baseball's brightest stars. This is an American story, in the broadest sense of the term.

Elizabeth DiNovella is the culture editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero
Author:DiNovella, Elizabeth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:1260
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