Perrotto: Clemente would be better understood today

Willie Stargell once made an interesting point about Roberto Clemente.

“In a lot of ways, Roberto had it worse than I did,” the late Hall of Fame slugger said.

Stargell entered professional baseball in 1958 when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him following his senior of his high school in Alameda, Calif. An African American, Stargell encountered racism on his climb through the minor leagues and even after he reached the major leagues with the Pirates in 1962.

Clemente was also black and a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico. Clemente made his major league debut with the Pirates in 1955 and was teammates with Stargell for 11 seasons until his untimely death in a plane crash off the coast of San Juan on New Year’s Eve in 1972.

“The reason I always thought Roberto and other guys from the Latin American countries had it more difficult is that they didn’t speak much English, it was their second language,” Stargell told me in an interview in 2000, a year before his death. “They were dealing with racism for the first time in their lives, whereas it was common in the United States, and making it more difficult is they had a hard time communicating with people and were often misunderstood.”

For all his greatness as a player and a person, Clemente was far from a media darling during his Hall of Fame career. Many reporters described him as aloof, arrogant and a hypochondriac.

However, those who knew Clemente say that was a complete mischaracterization and that many things he said to reporters were misconstrued because he was not schooled in English.

“He wasn’t only a great player but a great teammate and a great friend,” former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass said.

One would like to think that Clemente would be more appreciated by the media today than he was five decades ago. Reporters are more open-minded toward interviewing Latin-American players than they were then – and even when I started covering baseball in 1988.

Oftentimes, during Clemente’s playing days, reporters would print Latino players’ answer phonetically.

The Pittsburgh Press’ Les Biederman once quoted Clemente as saying, “Me like hot weather, veree hot. I no run fast cold weather.”

Clemente would justifiably become incensed by those incidents, believing the media intentionally tried to characterize he and other Latin-American players as being dumb. He felt it was a form of racism.

Furthermore, being a Latin player in Pittsburgh during that time was not easy. Even to this day, Pittsburgh has one of the smaller Latino populations of any city in the United States. Thus, many Pittsburghers were — and still are, to an extent – not used to people speaking Spanish and somewhat wary of those who do.

Even legendary Pirates announcer Bob Prince felt the need to anglicize Clemente’s name by often referring to him as “Bobby.”

Yet it is safe to say the media’s perception of Clemente would be different today and he would be given more credit for leading the Pirates to two World Series titles, having 3,000 hits in his career and winning four National League batting titles.

For one, baseball writers are much more open to interviewing Latin player than, say, 30 years ago. The media has become more enlightened in time and realize that players from foreign countries have as much to say as American players.

Secondly, Major League Baseball and many of its individual clubs have taken steps toward helping Latin players navigate interviews better in recent years.

MLB now requires each team to have a Spanish-speaking translator, which helps clear up any potential miscommunication between players and media. Many teams also conduct English classes for Latin players when they are in the lower level of the minor leagues. Thus, those players have a better grasp of the language by the time they reach the majors than ever before.

Finally, social media has made a major impact for players of all races. Various platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram give them the opportunity to directly communicate with fans in their own words. Thus, nothing can be lost in translation in the media when players can bypass a third party.

Clemente was an extremely thoughtful and intelligent man. Fans would understand much better today than when he played.

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