The Last Hero

By David Maraniss
Sunday, April 2, 2006

It borders on sacrilege to consider another baseball player in the same lofty realm of sociological importance as Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color line nearly 60 years ago, but if anyone belongs up there with the fearless and incandescent Dodger, it might be Roberto Clemente.

Most athletes fade into oblivion after their playing days, but Clemente's story has grown in the decades since his death. There is even a movement now to have his No. 21 retired from the game and honored at major league ballparks alongside Robinson's No. 42, its proponents arguing that Clemente carries the same legendary status in the Latino world as Robinson does for African Americans and for people of any color shamed by the racism that kept blacks out of America's pastime until 1947. However that debate -- the literal application of symbolism -- plays out, the larger comparison of Robinson and Clemente is fascinating, especially in light of the recent dominance of Spanish-speaking players and the corresponding decline of black Americans in organized baseball. Clemente was both Latino and black, an intensely proud and passionate man who struggled furiously to succeed amid the crosscurrents of race, language and culture.

Born near the sugar cane fields of Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 18, 1934, Roberto Clemente Walker played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 seasons before dying in a plane crash on New Year's Eve, 1972, while trying to deliver medical aid and food to Nicaragua after a devastating earthquake. Like Robinson, he was a stirring athlete whose charismatic style lifted his team and transcended the statistics that define the game.

His totals were exceptional enough (exactly 3,000 hits, the magic number to assure enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, along with a .317 career batting average and 12 Gold Gloves as the league's finest right fielder), but again like Robinson, he was great and inimitable while not the all-time best. And unlike Robinson, Clemente was not the first of his kind. Several Latinos, white-skinned Cubans, had already played in the majors. The first Puerto Rican to make it was Hiram Bithorn, a burly pitcher from Santurce who won 18 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1943. There were also a few black Latino stars preceding Clemente, including the dashing outfielder Minnie Minoso from Cuba and fellow Puerto Rican Vic Power, a balletic first baseman.

Yet Clemente alone has emerged as the seminal figure in the baseball history of Latinos. There is a stadium named for Hiram Bithorn in San Juan, but few know the rest of his story, how he suffered a mental collapse after that one fine year in Chicago and eventually was shot to death, penniless and alone, by a corrupt cop in rural Mexico. Clemente's memory still burns bright in all of Latin America. When the Baltimore Orioles went to Havana in 1999, they learned that Clemente was as honored there as any Cuban. Ozzie Guillen, the Venezuelan who managed the Chicago White Sox to the World Series championship last season, revealed afterward that he kept a shrine at his home for Clemente, whom he admired above all others. In Nicaragua and in Puerto Rico, the island he always came back to, he is regarded with the reverence of a saint, a perspective reflected by a 30-foot-long cenotaph in Carolina where one panel portrays him holding a lamb. Partly this is because of how he died -- on a humanitarian mission to help strangers, the plane plunging into the sea, his body never found. And partly it is because of how he lived and played -- with the same relentless force, and pride in who he was and where he came from, that fueled Jackie Robinson.

In the Puerto Rico of Roberto Clemente's childhood, there were no legal or overt social barriers separating the races. Years before they integrated the majors, American blacks, led by Josh Gibson, the fearsome slugger of the Negro Leagues, played in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Clemente rooted for the San Juan Senadores, and his idol as a teenager was Monte Irvin, a graceful outfielder who was just getting a shot with the New York Giants after starring for 10 seasons with the Newark Eagles. Irvin recalled decades later that young Clemente, shy and without a ticket, would get into the games by carrying Irvin's suit bag to the locker room -- a small gesture that captures the longstanding symbiotic relationship of blacks and Latinos in baseball. Puerto Rico also served as the training ground for the first black manager in the majors, Frank Robinson, who got his start with the Santurce Cangrejeros, eventually broke the managerial color barrier with the Cleveland Indians in 1975, and now three decades later is in the dugout for the Washington Nationals.

When Clemente began his baseball migration to the mainland, he followed in Jackie Robinson's footsteps. He was signed by the same Brooklyn Dodgers and like Robinson was sent to play for its AAA club, the Montreal Royals. The following winter, when the Dodgers failed to protect him on its 40-man roster, he was stolen by Pittsburgh in a supplemental draft, and it was for the Pirates in 1955 that he began his major league career. Eight years had passed since Robinson had desegregated the game, and the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, took note of the gains that had been made by what the paper called "Tan Stars."

By 1955 there were 28 black regulars on major league teams, including future Hall of Famers Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, along with 13 black rookies. Five years later the Courier reported there were 49 blacks on National League rosters and 15 in the American League. The numbers would increase year by year into the mid-1970s.

From the start of his career, Clemente faced a double barrel of discrimination as a Spanish-speaking black man, and constantly raged against the inequities he faced. During Florida spring training for his first seven years with the Pirates, he was forced to live with a black family in the Dunbar Heights section of Fort Myers while his white teammates enjoyed hotel rooms downtown. When the team held its annual spring golf outing at the local country club, Clemente and his few black teammates were not invited. He found it humiliating to have to stay on the team bus while his white teammates stopped at roadside restaurants on Grapefruit League road trips, and finally forced the Pirates' management to let the black players travel in their own station wagon. Enduring spring training, he once said, was like being in prison.

He was also infuriated by stereotypes. In a Life magazine preview of the 1960 World Series, in which he got a hit in every game of Pittsburgh's stunning upset of the New York Yankees, he was criticized for what was called his "Latin American variety of showboating" -- although the example used was of him rounding third base and barreling over his coach on the way toward an inside-the-park home run, a play that might have been seen as an example of grit and determination if he had been a white player.

And he hated being quoted in broken English by sportswriters who did not know a word of Spanish. When he drove in the winning run and was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1961 All-Star Game in San Francisco, the headline in the Pittsburgh Press the next day read "I GET HEET" and the wire service account quoted Clemente as saying, "When I come to plate in lass eening . . . I 'ope that Weelhelm [Hoyt Wilhelm] peetch me outside. . . ."

Late in his career, Clemente got his sweet revenge, and he did so in a way that solidified his reputation as the most revered of Latino ballplayers. The moment came in the locker room after the seventh game of the 1971 World Series. The Pirates had defeated the favored Baltimore Orioles with Clemente playing brilliantly at the plate, on the base paths and in the field -- an all-round performance that the pitch-perfect baseball writer Roger Angell described as "something close to the level of absolute perfection."

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