David Maraniss grew up in Wisconsin in the late 1950s. That meant that the Washington Post associate editor and Pulitzer Prize winner began his baseball life as a Milwaukee Braves fan. As such, he had the pleasure of rooting for such Hall of Famers as Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, and Henry Aaron. But when it came time to settle on a hardball hero, he picked none of these local legends. “I thought [Roberto] Clemente was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he says. For his fourth book, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, Maraniss turns that bit of childhood worship into a thesis statement.
“In sainthood, people put a lamb in [Clemente’s] arms, but he was no saint, and certainly not docile,” Maraniss writes in his introduction. “He was agitated, beautiful, sentimental, unsettled, sweet, serious, selfless, haunted, sensitive, contradictory, and intensely proud of everything about his native land, including himself.”
There’s a bit of an ode-like quality to the book, but Maraniss says there was plenty about Clemente that merited homage. Clemente was only the second man voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame before the required five-year-retirement waiting period was up—and like that of the first, Lou Gehrig, his early induction was likely because of the nature of his death. While on a humanitarian mission to deliver goods to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua, Clemente’s plane was lost at sea.
But the trials and triumphs of his living years are what make Clemente Cooperstown material, Maraniss believes. As the first Latin superstar, and an outspoken and deeply socially conscious Puerto Rican, Clemente broke into baseball when the game was still an overtly hostile environment for people of color. “I saw in him a chance to write about a lot of issues, including baseball, but larger than that—race and language, the Latino presence…and also [to] study someone who grew in character as they got older,” Maraniss says.
Clemente’s rookie Major League season was in 1955. Right from the beginning, he began to see slights—real and not so real—at the hands of the press. Maraniss writes that the Pirates then provided “no dormitory housing…and while the white players were put up at the Bradford Hotel…Clemente and other black prospects were shuttled off to board in private homes in the historically black Dunbar Heights neighborhood.”
Such incidents may have primed the rising star, who would say later, in an interview that Maraniss quotes, “When I started playing in 1955…every time I used to read something about the players, the black players, [the writers] have to say something sarcastic about it. For example, when I got to Fort Myers, there was a newspaper down there and the newspaper said, ‘PUERTO RICAN HOT DOG arrives in town.’” But Maraniss studied every edition of the Fort Myers newspaper in 1955—from before training camp opened until the team headed north—and found no such headline.
Although Clemente’s frustration with the media would last until his final days in uniform, he eventually learned to temper it. “[It] was something that all the sportswriters had known about Clemente for years,” Maraniss writes. “He would erupt but his anger would pass, and if he was proved to be wrong, he would apologize.” Even as a young boy, Clemente was known affectionately as Momen, short for momentito, something he always said when he needed some time to respond calmly.
To study the man behind the myth, Maraniss traveled extensively, including trips to important Clemente locales such as Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh. His travels afforded him the chance to interview Clemente’s wife, Vera, and two of their sons and ultimately led to an extended conversation with the late Vic Power, an affable, Latin Clemente contemporary, at a Starbucks in San Juan. “He was [a] great guy, very funny, full of good will,” Maraniss says of Power.
“I don’t try to glorify the past too much,” says the author. “But I think that money, publicity, celebrity, the nonstop 24-hour sports talk, all of that makes it harder to see the real people.”
Whether you can call it glorifying or not, Maraniss’ regard for the sports heros of old is obvious: “Clemente didn’t have an agent telling him to go visit sick kids in the hospital or to get on that plane to go to Nicaragua,” he says. —Mike Kanin