Heart of a Champion

By Ken Parish Perkins
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Even before Roberto Clemente boarded a DC-7 aircraft that would plunge into the Atlantic Ocean, his status as a legendary enigma was already sealed: The silky-smooth outfielder with the rocket arm and textbook hitting skills led Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates to a pair of World Series triumphs over an 18-year stretch.

But some might not have emotionally grasped the native Puerto Rican's inner battle as he navigated the bicultural existence he found in the United States -- where neither the black nor white world seemed to understand him thoroughly.

Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz understood quite well. Ruiz, born in Mexico and raised in Brooklyn, felt an intimate connection to the notion of straddling two different worlds.

"That's what drew me to Roberto's story," said Ruiz, whose one-hour documentary, "Roberto Clemente," airs as part of PBS's "American Experience" series. "That and the fact that he wasn't the typical athlete. He suffered from insomnia, had nightmares, felt he would die young. He was accused of being a hypochondriac. He certainly wasn't the typical alpha male."

Most of what people know of Clemente is that he was a soft-spoken, big-hearted humanitarian who died in his prime, said Ruiz, who wrote, directed and produced the film.

Major League Baseball had commissioned profiles of Clemente before, but Ruiz said he had seen nothing that dug into Clemente's interior life or showed how race and identity played vital roles during his time in Pittsburgh.

Clemente broke into the major leagues during the 1950s, when segregation was alive and well in many areas. While white players could stay in nice hotels, others -- including Clemente -- were forced to find private homes in black neighborhoods.

But blacks often were loath to embrace a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican. Clemente, feeling isolated, signed autographs for hours after games because, as his teammates scattered, "he had nowhere else to go," Ruiz said.

The documentary examines how the press treated Clemente as an oddity. Footage shows journalists quoting his broken English phonetically -- "now I heet ball," "no play too moch."

Much of the documentary takes place within the turbulent 1960s, and Ruiz used archival footage of the civil rights movement along with a number of stills he borrowed from Clemente's widow, Vera.

She's interviewed in the film, along with Orlando Cepeda, another Puerto Rican who made inroads in Major League Baseball, and George F. Will, who has written books about baseball. Also interviewed is Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, who wrote the 2006 book "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero."

Clemente felt the sting of racism but never seemed embittered by his personal trials, the film notes. He instead used his fame to raise awareness of human rights issues and to help underprivileged youths in the states and Puerto Rico. On road trips during the baseball season, Clemente made time to visit sick children in hospitals.

It was that generosity that led him to board a plane on New Year's Eve, 1972, loaded with relief supplies for survivors of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua. Concerned over reports that the aid wasn't getting through, Clemente figured his personal involvement would help relief packages get to the people who needed them. The overloaded plane crashed within minutes of taking off from Puerto Rico.

"The most profound thing about Clemente is how he was able to hold multiple identities and still hold his community in high esteem," Ruiz said.

"We live in a complex, global time -- and when you have people who aren't scared of that complexity, they ought to be commended."


Monday, 9 p.m., PBS 26

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