He rolled his neck and shrugged his shoulders before swinging a heavy Louisville Slugger in a herky-jerky style both distinctive and captivating. Compact and powerful, black and beautiful, Roberto Clemente was no ordinary man, rapping line drives, striding full speed around the bases or stopping runners dead in their tracks every time he unleashed a bullet from deep right field.
“He had about him the touch of royalty,” said then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn as part of Clemente’s eulogy in 1973.
In the clubhouse, on the street, wherever he might be at the time, Clemente spoke eloquently and forcefully with those gathered, touching on subjects beyond his game and his multiple ailments. Always pressing, insisting on justice, equality and the dignity of people everywhere — in the United States, his native Puerto Rico and across the Americas.
He is both memory and myth. My Clemente might not be your father’s or mother’s Clemente. But irrespective of how we view the patron saint of Latino baseball, a humanitarian who gave his life during a New Year’s Eve airlift for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, every story portrays a man whose compelling life and career embody the spirit, the passion and the pride of La Vida Baseball.
What I liked about No. 21 often rubbed others the wrong way.
The Clemente that I remember was fiery, moody and uncompromising, a free-swinging Boricua whose combative nature was fueled by the turbulent ’60s and patronizing sportswriters who quoted Latino players’ broken English and anglicized their names. Clemente hated being called “Bob,” and refused second-class treatment.
“If white writers let him, he could be intimidating,” says George Vecsey, sports columnist emeritus for The New York Times who covered Clemente almost from the start. “He would ask ‘What do you guys want from me? Why do you say that my back hurts? That I always complain?’ He took it and ran with it to prove a point. How can a white reporter possibly know what a black athlete feels?
“But he was busting you,” says Vecsey. “If you stayed with him, he would smile and start talking baseball, much like Pete Rose. That’s my Clemente.”
For Dave Maraniss, who authored the much-acclaimed biography Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, Clemente was “no gentle saint.” Despite Maraniss’ Milwaukee roots and childhood loyalty to the Braves and Hank Aaron, he ultimately preferred Clemente’s style and substance.
“To reduce Clemente to numbers is to do him a disservice,” says Maraniss in a video clip taped for the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit, “Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente.” “Clemente was art, not science. He was beauty in motion. If you saw Clemente play, you would never forget it.”
Even today, it’s hard to forget Clemente. Maraniss counted 40 schools and more than 200 parks named in Clemente’s honor, from Puerto Rico to Africa to Germany. Decades after his death, the major-leaguers who wore 21 in his honor included two countrymen, Carlos Delgado and Rubén Sierra; one Dominican, Sammy Sosa; one Mexican, Esteban Loaiza; and Paul O’Neill, who grew up in next-door Ohio worshiping Roberto and the Pirates.
For Latino players, whether budding rookies, All-Stars or struggling journeymen, Clemente was always much more than a fellow pelotero. Clemente fought for their place in the game, literally and figuratively.
“He was nuestro defensor,” Luis Tiant told me in 2005. Our advocate. Tiant was another Latino pioneer, a pitcher from Havana, Cuba, whose twisting delivery — in which he turned his back to the plate — won 229 games from 1964 to 1982.
“Roberto went to the Pirates and insisted that they invite me to spring training,” says Osvaldo “Ozzie” Virgil Sr., the first Dominican to play in the major leagues when he debuted with the New York Giants on Sept. 23, 1956. A light-hitting utility player, Virgil then broke the color line for the Detroit Tigers in 1958 before moving on to the Kansas City Athletics and Baltimore Orioles, among others.
Partly because teams kept unofficial racial quotas, Virgil didn’t secure a big-league roster spot in 1963 and 1964. Clemente interceded, directly approaching Pittsburgh owner John Galbreath to give Virgil a shot in 1965. Clemente got his way. And while Virgil made modest contributions, it was his inclusion in a trade with the San Francisco Giants for another Dominican, Mateo “Matty” Alou, that greatly rewarded the Pirates for listening to Clemente. Alou would hit .342 and win the batting title in 1966 while becoming a two-time All-Star.
Clemente was a transformative figure. His presence changed who Americans could embrace as their sporting heroes. He was spectacular and foreign, yet modest and familiar. The superstar next door.
Nancy Golding, a college classmate of mine, grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A neighbor knew a photographer for the Pirates who knew Clemente, six degrees of separation that led to a fortuitous phone call in the early summer of 1969, when she was 12.
“Totally random,” says Golding. “My neighbor asked, ‘Do you want to come over and meet Roberto Clemente?’ We threw baseballs in the driveway. He was very nice to me.”
Golding’s Clemente was everyone’s friend, caring and humble, very much the son of Melchor, who earned 45 cents a day as a field hand in the sugar cane fields around the family’s hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico. In the Afro-Latino culture, the notion of hospitality is rooted in respect. As a result, that winter Golding ended up traveling on her own to Puerto Rico to stay with the Clemente family for a week.
“He was charismatic, warm, quirky,” says Golding. “He developed relationships with many people. Young, old — it didn’t matter. He was very idiosyncratic that way.”
Then you have Alki Steriopoulos’ Clemente. A musician who grew up in Pittsburgh, Alki long ago wrote a musical titled “21” that fused rock and jazz with Latin rhythms. Clemente inspired many an ode. But here’s why Steriopoulos never forgets Clemente or the night he perished on December 31, 1972.
“I’m driving through Western Pennsylvania, trying to get home. It’s bad weather, snowing and stuff. I’m tired, fighting sleep, nodding off. And then I hear the news on the radio. Like a jolt of electricity, it woke me up,” says Steriopoulos. “Even in death, he saved a life.”
My Clemente imprinted one enduring memory that knitted together his graceful game, staunch advocacy and hospitable demeanor: the clubhouse celebration in 1971 after the Pirates beat the Orioles in Game 7 and Clemente became the first Latino World Series MVP. Clemente pivoted to his family, to his people and his island, and did something many of us have done since we were young and still do to this day.
“Before I say anything here, I would like to say something for mother and father in Spanish,” he said in English, before switching languages right then and there, unprecedented in American television.
“En el día más grande de mi vida, para los nenes la bendición mía, y que mis padres me den la bendición en Puerto Rico.“
“On the biggest day of my life, I give my kids their blessing, and to my parents in Puerto Rico, I ask for theirs.”
Bendición, Roberto, bendición.
*Feature photo credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.