On the morning of the first day of 1973, my eleven year old mind was full of football. Achingly full, as I'd just endured the critical losses of both my two teams (Steelers and Penn State in playoffs and Sugar bowl) the day before. In light of my more recent passions the baseball season was a dim memory; it had ended badly for me, too, with the loss of my Pirates to the Reds in the NLCS. Larger concerns like earthquake victims in Nicaragua and the war in Vietnam I was content to ignore, as young children are entitled. So after a quick breakfast (Wheaties, no doubt), I ran out of the house and down the street to the neighbors' large corner lot where we played pickup football.
As the kids were gathering, one of them broke the awful news, "Did you hear about Clementy?"
"No. What about him?"
"He's DEAD. His plane crashed. I saw it on TV."
This was simply not possible; I ran home immediately but found no solace in the confirmation of the news. I spent the entire day in my room, balling my eyes out, utterly inconsolable. And yet, still, I couldn't believe it. Surely the great Roberto would have been able to break a window and jump out of the plane as it was falling. Surely my hero and absolute idol, so Godlike in my mind, would soon be seen swimming to shore. But as the certainty of his end became obvious with the passing of time, hope faded away, and was replaced by sadness. So much sadness, especially for his family. The image of Roberto, Jr. kissing a large photograph of his father is still gut-wrenchingly painful to me. And the hope of his survival was also replaced, strangely, by anger and confusion. Anger that he would so willingly give his life for a place I'd never even heard of. The Why of it I just could not comprehend.
David Maraniss' new book, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero takes me right back to that terrible day, and it also goes a long way toward explaining the Why of it which was so difficult for me to get my eleven year old mind around. Maraniss has succeeded both in creating a work which brings us closer to an understanding of not only the part of Clemente that was the baseball player (one of the most misunderstood superstars of his time), but also the whole man. It is an imperfect work, though, which is as it should be; it is fighting the considerable combined forces of Time and Enigma which have contrived to distance us further from the part of the Clemente story which rightfully abides in myth.
Maraniss' description and storytelling are superior, but it is the research and anecdotal material derived from interviews where the skill of the author is most apparent. I love a book with footnotes, and this one has 351 of them. Scores of former teammates and adversaries, family members, and friends were interviewed in researching the book, and from these many viewpoints, a picture of a most complicated man materializes. One who is at times both heroic and comic, sacred and profane, thoughtful and emotionally passionate, fiercely proud and touchingly humble.
Exquisite details ranging from the obscure to the profound abound in the text: Branch Rickey's skeptical assessment of the young talent, Roberto's reverent and awkward manner in courting his future wife, Vera, his apparent skill as a self taught chiropractor, the explanation of his choosing the number 21, his haunting fear of dying in a plane crash. Many pages are devoted to describing the Puerto Rico of his youth, and attention is given to the earlier generation of great baseball players from the island, including the sad story of Hiram Bithorn. In fact, some of the best moments in the book describe his relationship to the people and land of Puerto Rico, and many of the most telling descriptions in the book come from the interviews with Clemente's fellow Puerto Ricans. It is obvious that these interviews were conducted in Spanish, and they create a balance with the more "American" viewpoint from which earlier Clemente biographies have been drawn, and from which, of course, readers like myself have mostly been informed.
The book would be incomplete without describing the Great One's many run-ins with the press, and Maraniss certainly does not disappoint, with numerous examples both frustrating and humorous. His frequent quotes from the Pittsburgh Courier, a small circulation "black" newspaper of the time are refreshing. Even the Courier, though, would quote Clemente with phonetic spellings of his mispronunciations which even I knew annoyed him back then, and thus we see that beyond being an outsider because of his skin color, he was doubly an outsider because of his difficulty with the English language. In fact, one of the strongest themes of the book chronicles the racism which he encountered upon his arrival in the United States. The descriptions of the Jim Crow treatment of black athletes in Florida for spring training are shocking, and Clemente was in the thick of it.
Maraniss' treatment of the baseball side of Clemente is equally exciting and revealing, though not really where the book discovers new things. When Maraniss delivers us the voices of the players of Clemente's generation, though, (names like Jose Pagan, Manny Sanguillen, Steve Blass, Vic Power, Orlando Cepeda) descriptions of on field events get magical, as they should in a book that will undoubtedly only be filed in the "Sports" section at Barns Ignoble. Maraniss' analyses of Clemente as a baseball player might fall short of perfection, however, for the sabermetrically minded.
Details concerning the earthquake, Nicaraguan dictator Somoza's hampering of relief efforts, the plane crash and aftermath are painstakingly revealed. In the footnotes the author describes his acquisition of two dusty boxes of legal and Federal Aviation Agency documents labelled "Clemente" as striking the goldmine, and he delivers the story to the reader effectively. It is simply appalling to learn the details of the circumstances of the crash; the futile tragedy is revealed in all its ignominy.
Much of the last chapter of the book is devoted to memories of the death of Clemente by people who were close to him. Many describe strikingly similar reactions to my own upon hearing the news on that stark January morning. The reaader gets a sense of a great community of people who loved the man and have mourned him these thirty some years, and it is gratifying for one who shares the sentiment to bask in it. Thankfully Maraniss also avoids worshipping Clemente, and many stories reflect what a straightforward, even crude man he could be at times.
This book is a must read not only for older fans like myself who want to know more about one of the great baseball personalities, but also for young fans who want to learn more of the history, not only of the game, but of the world that surrounds the game.