“Clemente,” the new book by pulitizer prize-winning author, David Maraniss, hits the shelves today. It is a fine appreciation of Roberto Clemente, who is undoubtedly one of the most charasmatic players of the post-War era. Although Clemente was a key member of two World Championship teams, he played in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and ’60s, and was overlooked for his much of his career. Until, of course, his monumental performance in the 1971 Serious, and his untimely death in December of 1972. His legend and reputation have grown ever since.
As my pal Steve Treder put it to me in an e-mail recently:
Clemente was actually slightly underrated until the late ’60s, and especially during the 1971 World Series when he suddenly got noticed by the national media. At that point they all suddenly seemed to think he was better than he actually was, after years of being overlooked. His early tragic death soon afterward froze his image in time. Had he lived, and had a few years of decline phase at the end of his career, his reputation probably would have balanced out about right. As it is, many casual fans seem to think he was the equal of Mays/Aaron/Robinson/Mantle, when in fact he wasn’t nearly as good as any of them.
It is no insult to say that Clemente wasn’t as great as Mays, Aaron, Robinson or Mantle. They are all legends. Fortunately for Maraniss, off-the-field, Clemente was more interesting than most. And between the lines, Maraniss points out, Clemente had a terrific, inimitable style.
There was something about Clemente that surpassed statistics, then and always. Some baseball mavens love the sport precisely because of its numbers. They can take the mathematics of a box score and of a year’s worth of statistics and calculate the case for players they consider underrated or overrated and declare who has the most real value to a team. To some skilled practitioners of this science, Clemente comes out very good but not the greatest; he walks too seldom, has too few home runs, steals too few bases. Their perspective is legitimate, but to people who appreciate Clemente this is like chemists trying to explain Van Gogh by analyzing the ingredients of his paint. Clemente was art, not science. Every time he strolled slowly to the batter’s box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one’s eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility. “The rest of us were just players,” Steve Blass would say. “Clemente was a prince.”
Thanks to Mr. Maraniss and the good people at Simon and Schuster, here is an excerpt from “Clemente.” This section is less about Clemente specifically and more about the conditions that Black and latin players encountered in the early 1960s. But it establishes the backdrop that is essential to understanding Clemente’s story. Enjoy!
BOOK EXCERPT: From “Clemente”
By David Maraniss
“Pride and Prejudice”
[Clemente] arrived at Pirates camp to train for the 1961 season on March 2, a day late. He and Tite Arroyo had been delayed entry from Puerto Rico to Florida until tests came back proving they did not have the bubonic plague, a few cases of which had broken out in Venezuela during the tournament.
On the day he reached Fort Myers, free from the plague, a story ran on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: NEGROES SAY CONDITIONS IN U.S. EXPLAIN NATIONALIST’S MILITANCY. One of the key figures quoted in the story was Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, who in the Times account was referred to as Minister Malcolm. Interviewed at a Muslim-run restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Malcolm X said the only answer to America’s racial dilemma was for blacks to segregate themselves, by their own choice, with their own land and financial reparations due them from centuries of slavery. He dismissed the tactics of the civil rights movement as humiliating, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins that were taking place throughout the South. “To beg a white man to let you into his restaurant feeds his ego,” Minister Malcolm told the newspaper.
This was fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregated schools, five years after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in Montgomery, four years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in the capital of Arkansas, one year after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro. Year by year, the issue of race was becoming more urgent. The momentum was on the side of change, but the questions were how and how fast. In baseball, where once there had been no black ballplayers, now there were a hundred competing for major league jobs, and along with numbers came enormous talent, with ten past and future most valuable players among them. Yet every black player who reported to training camp in Florida that spring of 1961 still had to confront Jim Crow segregation. Even if their private emotions were sympathetic to Malcolm X’s rage at having to beg a white man to let you into his restaurant, the issue in baseball was necessarily shaped by its own history. Having moved away from the professional Negro Leagues and busted through the twentieth century’s racial barrier, black players did not view voluntary resegregation as an option, and separate and unequal off the field was no longer tolerable.
Wendell Smith, the influential black sportswriter who still had a column in the weekly Pittsburgh Courier but wrote daily now for the white-owned newspaper Chicago’s American, began a concerted campaign against training camp segregation that year. On January 23, a month before the spring camps opened, Smith wrote a seminal article that appeared on the top of the front page of Chicago’s American headlined negro ball players want rights in south. “Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south,” Smith wrote. “The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training.” Smith added that leading black players were “moving cautiously and were anxious to avert becoming engulfed in fiery debate over civil rights,” but nonetheless were preparing to meet with club owners and league executives to talk about the problem and make it a front-burner issue for the players association.