No gentle saint
Roberto Clemente was a fierce critic of both baseball and American society
Roberto Clemente never got the chance to be old school. He died too young, at age 38, so long ago now that he has been gone longer than he was with us. That he is still remembered and revered more than four decades after his passing is a testament to the way he lived, with passion and pride, and the way he died, in a plane crash, while delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. As the patron saint of Latino baseball, the first to reach the Hall of Fame, he ranks only behind Jackie Robinson among players whose sociological significance transcended the sport itself, a status that Major League Baseball now recognizes with an annual Roberto Clemente Day, this year celebrated on May 31.
But Clemente was no gentle saint, and the mythologizing of him, while done with good intentions, smooths over the jagged reality of his life and times and softens the important issues that he so fiercely raised during the middle of the 20th century and that remain relevant today, both in baseball and American society.
With the nativist strain in American politics resurgent this year, I wish that Clemente were around to respond to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and those who promote fear based on geography and language and race, and to take on know-nothing celebrity sports figures such as Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman, Bobby Knight and Mike Ditka who are attracted to Trump’s bluster and braggadocio. Clemente loved to win and never suffered from low self-esteem, but in so many ways his life stood in dramatic contrast to the say-anything, egocentric, reality TV celebrity world of today.
His overriding loyalty was not to himself but to the common people. He was a star who disdained the trappings of celebrity and seemed most at ease bantering with soda vendors in the stands or jibaros, the hardworking farmers on the hilly back roads of Puerto Rico, his island homeland.
He was fiercely proud of who he was and where he was from, at once a migrant worker who made annual pilgrimages north to the mainland to make a living, and a U.S. Marine Corps reservist who, like all of his Puerto Rican countrymen, was born and bred an American citizen.
He was a quirky perfectionist with an artist’s sensitivity, finely attuned to every ache in his body, a hypochondriac, to be sure, yet one who played more games than any Pittsburgh Pirate in history and constantly sought to overcome the derogatory stereotypes of the emotional and lackadaisical Latin.
He was an athlete whose style and beauty on the field of play could never be quantified adequately by statistics, and certainly not by the modern rage of computerized analytics. No number or equation could come close to conveying the thrill of watching Clemente fire a rope from deep right field to third base.
He was an activist who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen in the Jim Crow South during spring training and struggled to find his place in Pittsburgh, a northern city with long-established black and ethnic white populations but few Latinos.
He was that rare athlete who was growing as a human being as his physical talents diminished, becoming less defensive and more open to the possibilities and injustices of this world, a humanitarian whose commitment to others led to a tragic death on that long ago New Year’s Eve.
And he was a black man who spoke his mind in a second language, an intelligent thinker whose statements were condescendingly presented in broken English by stateside sportswriters who knew no Spanish.
Earlier this month, when a sportswriter in Houston quoted Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez in broken English, my thoughts immediately went back to Clemente, who would have understood his fellow Latino’s anguish. Here, more than a half-century later, was the same tension between journalistic “realism,” cultural understanding, and personal dignity that Clemente had to deal with from the time he reached the major leagues in 1955. “The fans be angry, they be disappointed,” Gomez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, was quoted as saying. The quotation was verbatim and demeaning at the same time, and in the face of criticism, the newspaper’s editor issued an apology.
It had been worse for Clemente, and there were no apologies. Go back to 1961, the year after Clemente helped lead the Pirates to a World Series championship over the imperial New York Yankees. At the midsummer All-Star game, played in the wind tunnel of Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Clemente took his position among a group of National League outfielders that ranks as perhaps the greatest in baseball history: Willie Mays in center. Orlando Cepeda in left. Clemente in right. Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson on the bench. The game went extra innings – fans got their money’s worth! And Clemente was the star of stars, slashing a triple, driving in an early run with a sacrifice fly, and finally singling home Mays from second with the winning run in the 10th off knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm.
The next morning, the headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Clemente. I GET HEET. I FEEL GOOD. Not hit, but heet. The Associated Press story under the headline carried it further, transcribing Clemente’s description this way: “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. When I come to plate in lass eening…I say that I ‘ope that Weelhelm peetch me outside…”
To say that Clemente was upset when he saw the paper is to understate his reaction. But he was already ticked off. It was in that same postgame locker room, with the national sporting press corps gathered around him for the first time since the World Series, that he expressed his frustration over the way he had been dismissed by sportswriters in the 1960 Most Valuable Player vote. He had performed brilliantly on a championship team, batting over .300, leading the Pirates in runs batted in and game-winning hits, playing right field with verve, his arm unsurpassed – and yet came in eighth in the National League voting, trailing not only teammates Dick Groat and Don Hoak, who finished 1-2, but even drawing fewer votes than Lindy McDaniel, a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. Clemente thought he had been slighted for a combination of reasons: he wasn’t a homeboy, like Groat, he spoke a different language, and he was not on the best terms with many baseball scribes, who considered him brash and moody.
Which leads to a larger issue involving mythmaking. In death, Clemente became universally loved and admired, not only in Puerto Rico and all of baseball-mad Latin America, but especially in Pittsburgh, where he played for all of his 18 seasons. But it wasn’t like that during his playing days. Glorification after the fact is a common condition when it comes to great athletes who prove challenging in different ways, from Jim Thorpe to Jackie Robinson to Ted Williams to Jim Brown to Muhammad Ali. It was the same for Clemente. Not only did he scrape with the local press, he also had to overcome the ingrown prejudices of the Pirates’ overwhelmingly white, working-class fan base. Richard Peterson, a lyrical essayist who grew up in Pittsburgh’s South Side, later wrote with regret how he had played outfield on his high school team during the Clemente era and was looking for a hero and role model and might have latched onto Clemente, if only he had been able to overcome the cultural attitudes of his “shot and beer neighborhood defined by its ethnic enclaves, its steel mill mentality and its deep distrust of minorities.”
Clemente was a great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., supporting his philosophy of nonviolence and racial integration, the norm in Puerto Rico. During one visit to the island, King spent a long afternoon at Clemente’s farm, where the two men walked among the cattle and sheep as they talked about race and economics and identity and politics. Those topics were always on Clemente’s mind, even in the clubhouse. He was as likely to ruminate about civil rights as about the curveballs of Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal.
“Our conversations always stemmed around people from all walks of life being able to get along well, or no excuse why that shouldn’t be,” recalled Al Oliver, one of his closest teammates. “He had a problem with people who treated you differently because of where you were from, your nationality, your color, also poor people, how they were treated. That’s the thing I respected most about him – his character, the things he believed in.”
Yet there was also some measure of Malcolm X in Clemente’s proud sensibility. When he joined the Pirates at spring training in Florida, long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened public accommodations in the South, the prevailing policy was that when the team stopped for lunch, the black players would stay on the bus and wait for their teammates to bring food back for them from restaurants that served whites only. His pal Vic Power, another black Puerto Rican, but with a jocular disposition, used to joke that whenever a restaurant told him that they did not serve colored people, he would answer, “That’s OK, I don’t want to eat them, I just want some rice and beans.” Clemente would not joke about it. There was no way he was going to sit and wait on a bus. Instead, he demanded that the Pirates provide the black players with a station wagon so they could drive themselves and stop at restaurants that would serve them. And he spoke out strongly against Jim Crow segregation every chance he got, though often the only reporters interested were from black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender.
Over the six decades from the time Clemente reached the major leagues to now, the percentage of African-American players rose to about 19 percent and then fell dramatically below 10 percent, while the percentage of Latino players has increased steadily, now comprising about 30 percent.
During that time, baseball tumbled precipitously from its lofty perch as the national pastime, overtaken by the National Football League everywhere and by basketball in the cities. Baseball seems too slow in the quickening, impatient modern culture. To some degree, this is a closing of a circle of boredom. It is hard to imagine a boy today, in any society, so devoid of other things to do that he would, like young Roberto in the town of Carolina, fill a sock with rocks or hard dirt to make a baseball and throw it again and again against a wall. That boy is more likely to download a video game on his cellphone. Puerto Rico itself became so urban, so attuned to the cultural sensibilities of New York, that basketball in many areas overtook baseball as the favorite sport.
In its effort to adjust to the times, baseball is being shaped today by two trends that sometimes work at cross-purposes. One is the demand by many ballplayers that they be allowed to express their individuality and not be forced to conform to old-school baseball conventions. This is not really a matter of race or nationality, umpire-cursing Bryce Harper lays as much claim to this movement as bat-flipping Jose Bautista. And the truth is that this sort of behavior is not even really new. Baseball has had more than its share of colorful characters and edgy moments through the decades. (Jimmy Piersall running the bases backward or Dick Allen responding to fan criticism by scrawling “BOO” in the dirt with his spikes, for example. How would those go over on YouTube or Sports Center today?) I think Clemente would have been sympathetic to Harper and Bautista. He believed in individual self-expression so strongly that when he was interviewed in the clubhouse after being named MVP of the 1971 World Series, he chose to respond first in Spanish. And as I said, he was no saint. Once, outside the stadium in Philly where he often mingled with fans, he once threw a punch at a young man who he took to be too aggressive.
The other trend is the evangelism of analytics. I’m an agnostic when it comes to this religion. I have nothing against using statistical analysis to figure out the best way to win, for each at-bat and over the course of a season. Adherents deny any bias to their obsession, claiming the system is the most colorblind of all, that numbers don’t have colors or speak languages other than math. That is their right, but count me among the skeptics. There is a superficial white-boy, smartest-guy-in the-room superiority to it in some front offices and among professional analysts that ticks me off. Wins against replacement cannot quantify leadership or athletic electricity and beauty, and those are the two traits that made Clemente memorable.
He was a brilliant player, with a .317 career average and a closetful of Gold Gloves, but he was not statistically the best – he didn’t hit enough homers or take enough walks; and anything within reach was in his strike zone. But I would rather watch Clemente than any other player I’ve ever seen. I’d rather watch him roll his sore neck round and round as he strode slowly to the plate; watch him reach out for a fastball high and outside and with his long, heavy bat stroke a double down the line; watch him run the bases like he was racing from a fire; watch him lope in to scoop up a single and nonchalantly loop the ball underhand back to the second baseman; watch him scramble back to the wall, haul in a long fly, and uncork that golden throw.
And more than any of the players in the game today, I’d rather listen to him, in any language, talk about his sense of place and pride of race and his unyielding determination to appeal not to the worst instincts of humankind but to our better angels. Any day, not just on Roberto Clemente Day.
Correction: This article has been changed to correct errors on who started in the outfield at the 1961 All-Star game and how long they stayed in the game.