Baseball players become the proper subjects for a book-length biography when they combine sustained athletic excellence with an aspect of character or personality, such as larger-than-life appetites (Babe Ruth), inner personal demons (Ty Cobb), an Olympian aloofness (Joe Dimaggio), an oracular wackiness in speaking (Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel), a sense of personal worth bordering on hubris (Ted Williams), a heroic struggle against societal opposition (Jackie Robinson), or a career cut off too soon by a failing body (Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax). As can be seen from many of these examples, a career spent in or started in a major media center always helps in the spreading of fame, and that is perhaps the only factor that mitigated against the writing of another full-scale biography of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall-of-Fame right-fielder Roberto Clemente. Almost every other above-mentioned factor was a part of his complex, often contradictory personality, with the addition to those of another element sadly lacking in all too many athletic careers: the capacity for empathy and altruism that led, in Clemente’s case, to a heroic off-the-field action that tragically ended his life.
Now David Maraniss has rectified that omission with his generally excellent biography Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Even for those who lived during Clemente’s career, his accomplishments come as something of a surprise. His cannon of an arm, yes, will never be forgotten, but the statistics are nevertheless extraordinary: two World Series rings, four batting championships (including the highest batting average during the decade of the 1960’s, a period known for its fearsome pitching), twelve Golden Gloves for fielding, exactly three thousand hits, andmost impressive of alla fourteen-game hitting streak during his World Series appearances, a record of postseason clutch hitting that many superstars whose career records dwarf Clemente’s can rightly envy. Clemente grew into a hitter who had no weakness. Add to that his movie-star good looks and his popularity with fans, and one can only conclude that the lack of attention paid to Clemente’s accomplishments is due to one factor, one that Clemente complained about throughout his career: that he was a Spanish-speaking ballplayer from Latin America.
Even though Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier in 1947, baseball writers in particular remained insensitive to the problems faced by Latin American ballplayers, problems exacerbated by language, class, and often race. Clemente, a dark-skinned native Spanish speaker from Puerto Rico, was particularly sensitive to any slight regarding his heritage or home. He insisted that he had been labeled a “hot dog” in a newspaper story written during his first spring training camp with the Pirates, applying a stereotypical charge about Latin ballplayers to him, even though Maraniss cannot find any evidence of this. For years sportswriters wrote their interviews with Clemente and other Latin ballplayers in a phonetic reproduction of their speech, which had the effect of depicting the athletes as pidgin-speaking half-wits.
Clemente was often considered withdrawn and aloof (which, at times, he was), when he was instead sensitive about his fluency in English, which he tried to improve by watching American Westerns on television (in one of them, The Lone Ranger, he would have seen how demeaning the pidgin English of Tonto was). Maraniss, too, is sensitive to the problems faced by Clemente in establishing not only his own worth but also that of other Latin ballplayers. Clemente insisted, for instance, that Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax got better press than Giants pitcher Juan Marichal because of Marichal’s ethnicity. Maraniss delves into Spanish-speaking sources, as well as other less-consulted sources, such as African American newspapers, who more closely followed the careers of Latin ballplayers than larger newspapers did.
As with most sports biographies, Maraniss uses the sports reporting of major newspapers as an important source, unfortunately falling into their hyperbolic jargon at times, such as when he says that in the 1960 World Series, Clemente’s powerful throwing arm threatened to turn the base-running Yankee Bill “Moose” Skowron into “moose meat.” Maraniss, as do many biographers, also falls into the trap of overidentifying with his subject, and as do many sports biographers, roots for his subject. This is not a complete “warts and all” portrait, as so many modern sports biographies are. For example, Maraniss delicately hints that Clemente’s sexual career was like that of many ballplayers of the time, as readers have learned exhaustively from other biographies, but does not go into any details, probably out of respect for Clemente’s wife and family.
For the most part, Maraniss exercises an impartial judgment on those facts he has uncovered,...
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