Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roberto Clemente: Baseball's Last Hero (A Father's Day Tribute)

When I was a wee lad, my Dad took my brother and me to baseball games at Pittsburgh’s famed Forbes Field. Built in 1909, this stadium hosted such immortal Pirates with terrific baseball names as Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Elroy Face, and Willie Stargell for sixty-one years. The fabulous Homestead Grays of the Negro League also called it home in the 1940s. Even the NFL Steelers played there for thirty years.

The first of these games with my father that I really remember happened in the summer of my sixth year. We were sitting in the left field line bleachers for a Saturday afternoon game against the Milwaukee Braves. In previous visits, such culinary delights as Cracker Jack and a grape snow cone would keep me enraptured. But on this day, I remember taking a more active interest in what was happening on the field. I vividly recall Dad pointing out #44 for the Braves, saying that he was going to become the best home run hitter of all-time. Quite a prediction about a youngster who was still in his twenties. That player was Hank Aaron. My Pop knew his baseball.

When a particular Pirate came to the plate, Dad told me “watch this man, son. He really knows how to hit.” Later in the game, he pointed him out again in right field, and informed me “that fella is the best outfielder in the entire world.” I sat entranced watching him make his powerful throws to the centerfielder during between-innings warm ups, and how he made graceful “basket catches” down around his waist as opposed to above his head like everyone else. After he caught a fly-out, he would non-chalantly flip the ball underhanded 150 feet or more back to the infield. I’d never seen anyone throw it like that…and haven’t since.

At one point in the game, a Brave slapped a hard single through the hole into right field. As a base runner was rounding third base and trying for home, number 21 charged the ball with ferocity, and unleashed a cannon-shot overhand throw that was a white blur. As the catcher caught the incendiary peg, he waited a moment for the embarrassed runner who didn’t even attempt to slide--he was out by so much. Dad rose to his feet cheering, as did the rest of the throng. I instantly became a fan of the regal Roberto Clemente.

Throughout the 60s and early 70s, when he was in the quartet of the greatest outfielders of that era alongside Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and the aforementioned Aaron, Clemente won four batting titles, eleven straight Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess, appeared in twelve All Star Games, earned an MVP award, and captured two World Series titles with the Bucs. He ended his career with exactly 3,000 regular season hits—a feat that only a handful of others had reached before him.

Roberto became my idol. I learned all I could about him. Upon hearing that he squeezed a rubber ball in his youth to strengthen his arm, I began regularly doing the same. I oiled-up my Roberto Clemente Rawlings glove the way he instructed. I used the same Clemente model thirty-six ounce thirty-four inch bat with the rounded handle just like he did…even though it was much too heavy for me until later in high school. Choking up on it was my only solution, and I learned a lot about bat control that way. I studied instant replays of his technique for charging a ball in the outfield, and how he put all of his being into those jaw-dropping rocket throws from right field to cut down runners (he had an amazing twenty-nine assists in one season alone).

Since the dimensions of Forbes Field were the largest ever of any in the major league stadium (355 feet down the left field line, 406 feet to left center, 457 feet to center--so deep that they stored the batting cage out there during games--and 390 to right center) Roberto adapted his hitting style to take advantage of those wide confines. Down the right field line was relatively short (317 feet), but there was a twenty foot wire fence above the eight foot wall, making it difficult for a right handed hitter to lift home runs over it. So, he became an expert of lining hard drives off that screen for extra base hits, or slicing screaming shots into the other gaps in the outfield. As a result, he hit an 166 triples in his career (no active major leaguer these days is anywhere near a hundred). Because Roberto hit that way, I modeled my style after that—becoming a “spray” hitter, and running the bases with wild abandon, trying to get that extra base if I could.

Many a night growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and Decatur, Illinois--hundreds of miles away from Pittsburgh--I would tune in the radio to clear channel KDKA (which could be heard in thirty-eight states and Canada) to listen to Pirate’s announcer Bob Prince and his eloquent descriptions of “The Great One.” When Roberto would stride towards the plate in a crucial situation, Prince would shout, “Arriba! Arriba!” (loosely translated ,“Let’s go, take us up!”) urging Clemente on to do something spectacular to help the Pirates’ fortunes.

I remember getting into arguments with other kids about whom the best baseball player was. I was often looked at funny because I revered this black Puerto Rican with the funny accent, as opposed to Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Carl Yastremski, or Johnny Bench. All great players, mind you. But because of the way I was raised, my Dad never noticed things about color or language—it was how someone carried themselves, and what they did with their lives that defined them according to how I was taught. And Roberto was the man for me.

Playing in a non-media center like Pittsburgh did not give Clemente the acclaim that he might have received otherwise. But during those two World Series in ’60 and ‘71, when the whole nation (as well as all of Latin America) was watching, he hit safely in all fourteen games, and led the Pirates to victory over the heavily favored Yankees and Orioles, respectively. In fact, he won the MVP award for the 1971 series by hitting .414, driving in or scoring most of the clutch runs, and making stalwart plays and throws out in right. It was on that stage when everyone noticed what an amazing star he was. Even women noticed him looking so dynamic and charismatic in his uniform...I dare say he was one of the most handsome men to ever play the game with his intense, brooding eyes, high cheekbones, and perfect lips. He carried himself like a proud steed, with the body of a world class ballet dancer: muscled shoulders rippling down to a narrow waist—thirty inches—the same throughout his entire career. He had powerful arms, and hands so magical they were said to have eyes in their fingertips.

The excellent biographer, David Maranis, wrote the definitive telling in Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. It brought back so many memories of times shared with my father watching “El Magnifico” play eighteen seasons for the battling Buccaneers.

Eloquently, Maranis states: Anyone who ever saw Clemente, as he played with a beautiful fury, will never forget him. He was a work of art in a game too often defined by statistics. And though it is a great book about baseball, the author explains it is more than that: Roberto Clemente was that rare athlete who rose above sports to become a symbol of larger themes. Born near the cane breaks of rural Carolina, Puerto Rico, at a time when there were no blacks or Puerto Ricans playing organized ball in the U.S., Clemente went on to become the greatest Latino player in the major leagues. He was, in a sense, the Jackie Robinson of the Spanish-speaking world, a ballplayer of determination, grace, and dignity who paved the way and set the highest standard for waves of Latino players who followed in later generations and who now dominate the game.

Since coming to the United States in the mid-50’s, at the dawn of the civil rights era, Clemente had grown more assertive on questions of racial equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at the top of the list of people he admired. They had met several times, and King once spent a day talking with Clemente on his farm in Puerto Rico. When King was assassinated in April 1968, Clemente led the way in insisting that the Pirates and Astros delay opening the season in Houston until after the slain civil rights leader’s funeral. The schedule called for games in Houston on April 8 and 9. King was buried on April 9. The Pirates and Astros, at the player’s request, held off on playing until April 10.

Al Oliver (who went on to become another tremendous hitter under Clemente’s tutelage), a black teammate who considered himself one of Clemente’s disciples, said Roberto would draw him into long discussions, more about life than baseball. “Our conversations always stemmed around people from all walks of life being able to get along well, no excuse why it shouldn’t be…He had a problem with people who treated you differently because of where you were from, your nationality, your color, also poor people, how they were treated…that’s the thing I really respected about him the most, was his character, the things he believed in.”

What Clemente admired most about King was not his philosophy of nonviolence, but this ability to give voice to the voiceless. “When Martin Luther King started doing what he did, he changed the whole system of the American style. He started saying what they would’ve liked to say for so many years, but no one listened. Now that wasn’t only for black people, but all minorities. People were empowered by him. That is the reason I say he changed the whole world.”

Because Clemente had a thick Puerto Rican accent, and was often fiery in his interviews and interactions with sportswriters, many misunderstood him. Few knew what he was really like in his private time. He regularly visited sick children in hospitals in every city the Pirates played in. He gave away great amounts of money to the poor. Since he had chronic back pain most of his adult life after a car accident in 1955, he was very sensitive to those with neck and spine problems. He studied chiropractics long before it was en vogue, and helped many—even complete strangers he met—who were in pain with massages and adjustments. He did much in his native Puerto Rico to assist with programs to help young people have opportunities other than delinquency and drugs.

When Clemente went to a splashy New York awards banquet to accept the award for the Outstanding Player of the World Series Ward in October 1971, famed sportswriter Roger Kahn said “He spoke with a huge, bursting beautiful heart.” His speeches in the past few years had become sharper and more powerful. He had a specific goal, the creation of a sports city in Puerto Rico, but also a more urgent sensibility, one that he had first articulated at a speech in Houston back in February 1971, before the start of the championship season, when he received the Tris Speaker Award. “If you have a chance to help others, and you don’t, you are wasting your time here on earth,” he said that night. This line of thinking is why Roberto Clemente has stayed much more than just a childhood idol to me. He still influences me greatly.

In his final years, Clemente often quoted his mother’s favorite philosophy: “Life is nothing, life is fleeting, everything ends, only God makes a man happy.”

In December of 1972, just a few months after the last game of the season where He had collected his 3,000th hit in his final at bat, a ringing double off the left center field wall at the still new Three Rivers Stadium where they Pirates had moved a few years before, Clemente’s mythology grew greater.

He had coached some winter league games in Nicaragua that fall, and had fallen in love with the people there. When the world heard of the massive earthquake that shook the small Central American country, killing tens of thousands, and leaving scores more homeless and in dire need, Clemente sprung into action. Within a matter of days, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as four planeloads worth of food, medication, and clothing in his homeland of Puerto Rico. After the first few shipments were delivered, and it became apparent that dictator Anastasio Somaza’s strongmen had confiscated them for their own purposes instead of letting them be distributed to the poor, Clemente determined that he needed to fly with the next load to assure that everything would be taken care of properly.

In the haste to get things done during New Year’s weekend, Clemente naively contracted an additional plane with an unscrupulous air trafficker to make the three-hour trip from San Juan to Managua. It turns out the DC-7 that was rented had mechanical problems, the captain had a terrible flight record and a history of drinking, the other crew were untrained, and to top it off, the plane was overloaded by at least ten percent.

On New Year’s Eve, 1972, at 9:18 PM, after several hours of delays trying to get various elements of the plane working properly, with Roberto’s insistence, the slipshod aircraft and crew took off. Clemente wanted to get to Nicaragua as quickly as possible to bring this aid, and to help unclog the bottleneck there, and hopefully be back home by the next evening to celebrate the holiday with his wife and three sons. The plane wheezed and groaned down the runway, barely achieving lift-off after using nearly all of the one and a half miles of concrete. Just avoiding some palm trees, it heaved and lurched out over the ocean, beginning to make the turn back towards the west, when it suddenly lost what little altitude it had gained, and crashed a mile off shore.

The skeleton staff at the airport (due to the holiday) didn’t know what had happened at first. In the darkness there was much confusion, and not enough rescue equipment to get out quickly in the rough seas. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as later salvage operations proved that with the shredded fuselage and shrapnel-like remnants that everyone was most likely killed instantly upon high impact with the water. No bodies were ever found, most likely due to heavy shark population in that area.

Within hours, the revelry of New Year’s Eve celebrations across the island came to a grinding halt as the news spread that the great Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash. By New Year’s Day, the airwaves across the America were sobered by the bulletins. I hadn’t been watching TV or listening to the radio when I got up, so I heard about it from my best friend, Duke, who called in tears to tell me around nine AM. I remember leaning against the washer in our downstairs laundry room where I took the call—stunned, and then began sobbing.

When all-star pitcher and teammate Steve Blass heard, he thought, “My God, Clemente! He’s invincible. He doesn’t die! He plays as long as he wants to and then becomes governor of Puerto Rico.” He and fellow all-star, reliever Dave Guisti, drove over to Pirates’ General Manger Joe L. Brown’s house in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs. Brown let them in and they sat around drinking coffee, talking about Roberto, and crying. Brown says, “we recalled the depth of the man, and the intelligence of the man, and the humor of the man. Clemente never held anything back from the people. He gave them more than they had any right to expect from him. He reminded me of a panther—the grace and power of a panther. I will always remember of footage from the ’71 Series of Roberto rounding second and sliding into third, so graceful and strong, such spectacular passion. What a good man.”

On January 2nd, Hernandez Colon was sworn in as Puerto Rico’s new governor. But the proceedings were quite somber, and all the festivities that were scheduled were canceled. In his inaugural speech, Colon said of Clemente, “our youth have lost an idol and an example; our people have lost one of their glories.”

At Robert’s memorial service a few days later, nearly all of the Pirates’ players and front office staff, as well as hundreds of other baseball dignitaries and many US government officials came to Puerto Rico to honor him. Many spoke, but it was when Willie Stargell stood up, that everything came into focus. For nearly a decade, Stargell had been the other pillar on the Pittsburgh team. He towered over Clemente physically, but always looked up to him. “I’ll tell you, it’s really hard to put into words all the feelings that I have for Robby,” Stargell said, fighting back tears. “Since I’ve been with him I’ve had a chance to know a really dynamic man who walked tall in every sense you can think of. He was proud, and he was dedicated. He was in every sense what you can determine a man to be. And I think going the way he went really typifies how he lived. Helping other people without seeking any publicity or fame. Just making sure that he could lend a hand and get the job done…the greatness that he is, we all know the ballplayer that he is. For those who did not know him as a man they really missed a fine treat for not knowing this gentleman. I had the opportunity to play with him, to sit down and talk about the things that friends talk about. And I am losing a great friend. He will always remain in my heart.”

In Spanish, Clemente means “Merciful.” How fulfilling of his moniker to die while on a mission of mercy. So touched was the baseball world with his death, that he and the immortal Lou Gehrig are the only players to have the five year waiting period waived so they could be enshrined in the Hall of Fame immediately after their deaths.

In one of his final interviews, Clemente said “Even though I make a lot of money, I live the life of a common fellow. I am not a big shot. If you go outside the ballpark you are never going to see me trying to put on a show or pull attention, because that’s not the way I am. I am a shy man, but you see me with all kinds of people all the time. The only thing I worry about is being healthy and living long enough to educate my sons and help them respect other people. As long as they grow up to respect others, I will be happy.”

Thanks, Dad, for introducing Roberto Clemente to me. But, after all is said and done, it is you who taught me the most about a love for baseball, and respect for others, and social justice---Roberto just echoed it.

Here are some video tributes to Roberto Clemente:

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good read about Roberto Clemente and what really made him great. A great man and humanitarian . . . and yes a great baseball player too.