La Vida Voices: Clemente biographer David Maraniss

As an author of five books at Latino baseball and history’s intersection, I have a profound respect for other authors. I’m admittedly particularly critical when another author writes on a subject matter in my sweet spot. This was the case when I read David Maraniss’ Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, the best Roberto Clemente biography I’ve ever read. It inspired me to reach out and tip my cap as a fan who was simply blown away about a subject matter, I felt I knew best.

Hollywood felt similarly and Legendary Pictures (“42”) acquired the story rights from Maraniss and has attached director, Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), to the feature film project.

Maraniss owns a Pulitzer Prize (’93) for his renowned work at The Washington Post where today he serves as the associate editor.  He’s no stranger to biographies having inked books on everyone from Barack Obama (Barack Obama: The Story) and Bill Clinton (First in His Class) to Vince Lombardi (When Pride Still Mattered) to name a few.  The Madison, Wisconsin native and D.C. journalism fixture has a byline history that parallels his Midwestern roots to his current presence in the epicenter of U.S. politics.

I was intrigued about David’s attraction to writing Clemente, since I considered it an outlier of sorts from his other subjects, and I wanted to know more about the back story of a white, Midwestern kid’s fascination with the Puerto Rican and Pittsburgh Pirates legend. As a Puerto Rican baseball historian and academic, I should’ve known the transcendent impact of #21 knows no boundaries. Maraniss’ book is a gift to all baseball fans and I’m thrilled I had a chance to connect with David recently to dig in more on his book, the film and his personal backstory. Let’s dig in…

Adrian Burgos, Jr: Tell us about what sparked your love of baseball and your career journey as a journalist and biographer?

David Maraniss: Baseball was always the favorite sport in my family, starting with my dad, who grew up in Brooklyn as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and hater of the New York Yankees. When the Dodgers moved to LA, he changed allegiances to a series of underdogs in the Midwest, including the Tigers, Indians, Cubs, Braves, and finally Brewers. I’ve been a Brewers fan since they came to Milwaukee in 1970. The first day of their first spring training was the day our son Andrew was born, passing along the tradition.

My love of writing has also been a family tradition.

My grandfather was a printer on Coney Island, my dad a lifelong newspaper man, and my mom a book editor, so it was in my blood. Luckily, I say, since I’m pretty incompetent at everything else! My siblings have all been scholars, professors, researchers, or musicians. I was the dumb one in the family who followed my father into newspapers. I’ve been affiliated with The Washington Post for more than 40 years, but in the last two decades I’ve mostly written books.

My interests are wide-ranging, but I only write books about things that obsess me, mostly political and sociological issues and biographies of people whose lives tell us something more about American life than just sports.

AB: I can see that thread in your work, but what inspired you to write on Clemente as a biographical subject? Additionally, how did time with the Clemente family provide further insight into who Roberto was and what he meant to them, Puerto Rico, and baseball?

DM: Clemente was a book I always wanted to write. He was my favorite player when I was growing up. I loved everything about him, the way he walked, the way he looked in his short sleeve Pirates uniform with the black shirt beneath, the way he threw the ball, hit the ball, and that he seemed so passionate and cool at the same time. But I only decided to write about him when I realized I could add something more.

Clemente was that rare athlete who was growing as a human being as he aged, and that he represented all Latinos in his love of his homeland and his pride of place and race, all of which he carried with dignity.

The tragic way that he died added to the drama of the story.

AB: I’m fascinated by your attraction to Clemente as someone with no Pittsburgh affiliation, but thankful! At La Vida Baseball, we aim to share the Latino passion for baseball. How did/has your travels to Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and perhaps elsewhere in Latin America while researching for your book (and thereafter) impact your understanding of both Clemente and what baseball means to Latinos?

DM: From the beginning I wanted to make it a story about Puerto Rico, about a migrant worker, in a sense, who came to the mainland for work and over the course of two decades won over so many people with his skills and his heart. My visits to Puerto Rico during the research for the book were crucial. Not only meeting and interviewing his widow Vera and the boys but also so many Latino players who considered him their leader – including Vic Power, Juan Pizarro, Orlando Cepeda, and many others.

My way of reporting biography is to go there, wherever “there” is, to understand the culture and geography that shape the life I’m writing about. Pittsburgh was important, but Puerto Rico was crucial. It became clear to me from my many visits that Roberto Clemente was much more than a baseball player; he was no saint, yet he earned saint-like status in his homeland and all of baseball-loving Latin America.

AB: How did writing the definitive biography on Clemente perhaps alter or deepen your appreciation of the experience of Latinos and baseball, whether as players or as fans? What stories or anecdotes from the reception to your book over the years further reveal how passionate fans are about Clemente?

DM: No subject I’ve written about generated more love and respect than Clemente. For so many reasons, wherever I went to talk about the book, I would encounter people who either had surprising interactions with Clemente or had watched him play – and in either case they conveyed a certain awe. Two or three times in various cities people came up to me and said they worked at concessions, selling Cokes or beer or peanuts, at Forbes Field or Three Rivers Stadium and that Clemente always stopped to talk to them and ask how they were doing. Others said variations of, “I was at Wrigley Field”, or “I was at Chavez Ravine”, or “I was at County Stadium”, or “I was at Crosley Field”, and I saw Clemente go deep into the right field corner, field the ball, and fire a rope to third base, and it was the most thrilling throw I’d ever seen. What an arm!

There were always stories about Clemente, and all told with equal amazement.

AB: We are excited that your book was optioned as the basis for the forthcoming Clemente film directed by Ezra Edelman, director of the award-winning “O.J. Made in America” series. What might we (and perhaps you) look forward to in the film on Clemente?

DM: My joke is that all of my books are in various stages of not being made into movies. Meaning Hollywood has bought options for them but none so far have made it to the finish line. When Pride Still Mattered, my biography of Vince Lombardi, did become a Broadway play, but none have become feature films. I’m hoping that Clemente will be the first.

Ezra Edelman has signed on to direct it, and a good friend of his, a Nuyorican, is writing the screenplay. I think of myself as the grandfather of the story, but it will be their movie, and I have complete confidence that – if and when it happens – it will be done right. A previous incarnation of a movie script bothered me because it was too centered on Pittsburgh and white players and announcers and did not do what I wanted a movie to do, which is to center the movie on the feeling of Clemente being Puerto Rican.

AB: Man, I feel like we’re just getting started. I could go on for hours on this. Please keep us posted on the film’s progress and we’d love to check back with you from time to time to dive in deeper on all things Roberto. Also, if you have any in person book events, please let us know and we’ll share with the La Vida Baseball community. I feel a La Vida Baseball book club coming soon!

Be sure to follow DAVID on Twitter!

Featured Image: University of Wisconsin