The slow rise and untimely loss of the first Latin Hall of Famer

Review Biography


Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero

David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster / 354 pages / $26

It requires less than 10 seconds to produce a primer on Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente that would pretty much cover what the current generation of serious baseball fans knows about him:

Rifle-armed Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who died in a 1972 plane crash trying to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

In Clemente, biographer David Maraniss admirably fills in the blanks in a life and a death each shrouded in its own kind of mystery.

Don't misunderstand. There is no great mystery about Clemente. With 3,000 career hits, he was one of the best baseball players ever, but his life was a series of contradictions, and his premature death was both unnecessary and - to a great degree - not fully explained in the appropriate rush to canonize him for his humanitarian spirit.

Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post associate editor who has produced best-selling biographies of Bill Clinton and football coaching legend Vince Lombardi, does a thorough job of revealing the public and the inner Clemente and adding to the historical record of the tragic plane crash.

Clearly, Clemente was a complex individual. He was sensitive, prideful and mercurial. He was a vocal champion of civil rights and a trailblazer for the coming wave of great Latin American ballplayers. He was branded a malingerer and hypochondriac because of the injuries and illnesses that dotted his career, yet he appeared in more games than any other player in Pirates history.

He arrived in the United States during a period of dynamic social transition and bristled at the inequality that was further complicated by the language barrier faced by Latin players.

For many years, the essence of Clemente was lost in the translation. He was underappreciated - in relation to the other great baseball heroes of his generation - but that was more the result of geography than any concerted attempt on the part of baseball fans or the media to deny him his rightful place alongside Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.

Maraniss dwells on Clemente's certainty that the neglect was because he was from Puerto Rico, but others were just as certain that it was because he played in Pittsburgh.

Dave Cash, the current Orioles first base coach who played there alongside Clemente, insists that it was more a matter of small-marketness than small-mindedness, though there surely was a cultural component to Clemente's slow emergence as a superstar in the United States.

"It was Pittsburgh," Cash said in a recent interview. "When I went from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, it was like night and day. If he had played in one of the big sports towns, it would have been different."

Whatever the reason, Maraniss makes the case that Clemente's perception of the situation is at least as important as the reality. He was serious, sometimes brooding, resentful of the local press and - though it is never fully articulated - perhaps a little lonely on the mainland.

He also was slow to develop into the dynamic player who lit up the 1960s and then gave the last full measure ferrying food and medical supplies to earthquake victims in Managua.

Despite the fawning title, the new biography does not shy away from the complexity of Clemente's personality, for better and worse. He was volatile enough to punch a fan for no apparent reason in 1966, and kind-hearted enough to reel a young Pirates fan and her mother into his extended family just because the girl thanked him for an autograph by saying "muchas gracias."

Maraniss is an experienced biographer whose attention to detail is apparent from the first page of this intriguing picture of baseball's first Latin American Hall of Famer, but that same meticulous approach to the examination of Clemente's 18-year major league career also keeps Clemente from being an even more entertaining read.

Perhaps this is nitpicking, but Maraniss spends 10 more pages on the blow-by-blow account of the nine days of the 1960 World Series than it does on Clemente's entire life leading up to his arrival as a teenage prospect in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.

The book wanders through the 1960 Fall Classic largely outside of Clemente's point of view and moves slowly through the 1960s before finally focusing on the sad and preventable confluence of events that led to the tragic plane crash on New Year's Eve 1972.

It is only in these final pages that Maraniss strays from the balanced examination of Clemente's angst-inspired greatness to present the man in full: his altruistic instincts overcoming good judgment to fulfill a sort of messianic humanitarian destiny.

He became, like so many fallen heroes, even greater in death than he was in life, creating a humanitarian legacy that is celebrated at each World Series with an award in his name to the major league star who best exemplifies his dedication to helping others.

Peter Schmuck spent 26 years covering Major League Baseball before becoming a columnist at The Sun in 2004.

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