Roberto Clemente wasn’t the best baseball player ever, but he was a great one—and one absolutely necessary for his time and his team.
So claims Washington Post editor Maraniss (They Marched Into Sunlight, 2003) in this agile biography of the immutably proud Clemente, who wore his anger and sense of injustice as a badge of honor, certain that he and his fellow Latino ballplayers were undervalued and exploited. He complained of the sports press, for instance: “They have an open preference for North Americans. Mediocre players receive immense publicity while true stars are not highlighted as they deserve.” He wasn’t thinking selfishly only of himself, but of Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Julio Roubert and other players who had just crossed a sometimes double color line—not just against blacks, but against just about anyone whose first language was not English. Clemente distinguished himself as a baseball player, going to heroic lengths for the Pittsburgh Pirates (though he really wanted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers), with whom he spent his entire professional career (1954–72). Clemente’s extraordinary performance in the 1960 World Series is the stuff of legend, with the Pirates beating the Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris–era New York Yankees, and Maraniss delivers an exciting reconstruction. He is clearly at home with the workings of the game, and his account of Clemente’s ability to judge whether a bat was any good from the way it sounded (he was also an amateur woodworker) will please anyone who remembers the pre-aluminum days. Yet Maraniss scores a double play by tracking Clemente’s evolution as a social force: The ballplayer indeed helped break down racial barriers, and was a humanitarian and philanthropist to boot. It seems that Clemente could have played until he was 100, but he died in a plane crash while delivering aid to victims of the 1972 earthquake that shattered Nicaragua.
A nuanced, expertly written life of much more than a sports hero.