'Clemente' Tells Story of a True Baseball Hero Today's many Latino baseball stars owe a debt to Roberto Clemente, the first Latino ballplayer to rise to U.S. stardom. Clemente died at 38, delivering supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua. His life is the subject of a new biography by Pulitzer-winner David Maraniss.
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'Clemente' Tells Story of a True Baseball Hero

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'Clemente' Tells Story of a True Baseball Hero

'Clemente' Tells Story of a True Baseball Hero

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Look down the lineup of any Major League Baseball team and you'll find a roster full of names like Rodriguez and Rivera and Pujols and Ortiz. Each owes a debt to baseball's very first Latin American superstar, Roberto Clemente, who played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, his entire career. Clemente was a graceful presence on the diamond, making near-impossible plays in the outfield and winning four National League batting titles.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

GONYEA: That hit, number 3,000, was Clemente's last. He died three months later in a plane crash carrying relief supplies he had collected for victims of a deadly earthquake in Nicaragua on New Year's Eve in 1972. David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's written books about former President Bill Clinton and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. His latest work is Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero.

David Maraniss joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID MARANISS (Author, Clemente): Thank you, Don. Great to be with you.

GONYEA: Well, let's go back to the beginning. What was it like for a young ball player like Clemente, 18 years old or so, coming to the US to play baseball in the mid-1950s. Jackie Robinson had already broken the color barrier, but were there other barriers he encountered?

Mr. MARANISS: Absolutely. Remember, he came from Puerto Rico, which I think all societies have certain racism, but there was no segregation in Puerto Rico. The great Negro League players from the US would go down to the Puerto Rico to play before they could play in the United States. So Clemente came from a place where being a black Latino was not a bar to anything.

He came to Pittsburgh, had no Latin community whatsoever. For many, many years the sportswriters would quote him in broken English. You know, there was a big headline that said, I get heet, when he got the winning hit in an All Star game instead of hit, H-E-E-T. It infuriated Clemente.

And so the adjustment took a long time for Clemente, but he did it. And one of the great testaments is that Pittsburgh, sort of the quintessential blue-collar steel town, you know, white ethnic dominant, came to love Roberto Clemente.

GONYEA: I'd like to ask you to read a passage from the book, page 187, about how seriously Clemente took every single aspect of the game, including every single at bat.

Mr. MARANISS (Reading): Clemente would never smile preparing for a plate appearance. When he approached the rack inside the dugout, his attitude was that of a surgeon toward his instruments, or a toreador toward his swords. He knew these bats, these (unintelligible) models. He had studied them from the moment a new shipment came in during spring training. He was as tuned to them as he was to his body.

And his choice might depend on his mood or the fitness of his lower back or the pitcher on the mound, or something he saw in the grain of wood. Not ready yet to decide, he would haul two or three bats out to the on deck circle, carrying them all in one hand, then he would kneel, left knee bent at 90 degrees, right knee touching the ground, posture erect, the bats draped elegantly against his thigh.

One by one he would pick them up, heft them, as he stared at the pitcher and wiped them with his rag. Here was the serenity of Clemente before the storm.

GONYEA: You're describing a ritual and the ritual continued with the walk to the plate, right? As he kind of stretched and worked the kinks out?

Mr. MARANISS: He would walk very slowly to the plate. He would swirl his neck around time after time. It was one of the great iconic signatures of Clemente, is the way he would move his neck around. All of that was part of his ritual. It also had a purpose. He had been injured in an accident in 1954, right at the dawn of his career and it gave his neck whiplash and he was always trying to deal with that.

GONYEA: You write about how baseball changed from 1960 to 1970...


GONYEA: ...during that decade. It was also the decade when he did gain confidence and emerge as a leader for his team, right?

Mr. MARANISS: Oh, absolutely. But in terms of the Pirates, it went from a team where he was the lone minority player to one where in September of 1971, very quietly his Pittsburgh Pirates made history by fielding an entire team of blacks and Latinos.

GONYEA: First time that had ever been done.

Mr. MARANISS: First time it had ever happened.

GONYEA: In that same year perhaps his greatest moment was in the 1971 World Series against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

Mr. MARANISS: The Orioles had four 20-game pitchers. The Pirates had a pretty good team, but Clemente was getting older. It wasn't his best season and yet he seized the moment. The night before the first game, he was very sick with food poisoning. The next day in the morning he told his teammates just get on my back, I'll carry you. And boy, did he.

(Soundbite of 1971 World Series)

Unidentified Announcer: Here's Bobby Clemente. Bounced to short his first time up, hit the screwball a mile in the left center field. It is going. It is gone.

Mr. MARANISS: And he chose in the clubhouse as he was being interviewed afterwards to say, First, I would say something in Spanish to my parents back in Puerto Rico.

Mr. ROBERTO CLEMENTE (Baseball Player): (Foreign spoken)

Mr. MARANISS: I can't tell you how many people have come up to me who are Latino and say, I heard that or my father heard that and started crying.

GONYEA: There's something else about Clemente that came to the forefront really as his career blossomed, in speeches, but even privately when talking to friends, he would talk about the need to be more than just a great baseball player. How he felt that more was required of him.

Mr. MARANISS: He would, giving his speeches, he would say, if you have an opportunity to help others and fail to do so, you're wasting your time on this earth. He didn't have an agent telling him to do these things, but he would go to hospitals in every community, visited the sick kids, and then of course the fatal moment when there was a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, he started organizing aid to bring to the people there.

GONYEA: That was after the 1972 season. He'd just gotten his 3,000th hit and he's home in Puerto Rico and he heard about this earthquake. How did he react?

Mr. MARANISS: He immediately started raising medical aid, money, food for delivery to Nicaragua. Two planeloads went from San Juan to Managua and the people reported back to Clemente that the aid seemed to be getting diverted at the airport and they didn't know what would happen to it. Clemente was infuriated by this and he said, maybe if I go, the aid will get to the people.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Announcer: Divers from the United States Navy have joined the search for the plane, which crashed in the Atlantic off Puerto Rico last Sunday, killing baseball star Roberto Clemente and four others.

GONYEA: He was already a national hero in Puerto Rico prior to this, but his death on a humanitarian mission really took it to another level, didn't it?

Mr. MARANISS: One of the great writers in Puerto Rico said that on the night of his death, his immortality began. The next morning thousands of people lined the beach near where the plane went down thinking that Clemente might walk out of the sea.

GONYEA: David Maraniss is the author of Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MARANISS: Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: There's a photographic timeline of Roberto Clemente's career at our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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