Book Review: Clemente


By David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, $26)

As a keen evaluator of talent Branch Rickey saw more flaws than good things when he scouted a young Roberto Clemente as general manager of the Pirates in the winter of 1955. The man behind breaking the color barrier eight years earlier was on a scouting swing that took him to Clemente’s native Puerto Rico.

Earlier in 1955 the Pirates made Clemente the first selection in the Rule 5 draft, ironically taking him away from Rickey’s former employer, the Brooklyn Dodgers, where Clemente didn’t fit into their crammed outfield. However, Rickey reached a disappointing conclusion after watching his bonus baby play for the first time.

“I do not believe he can possibly do a major league club any good in 1955,” reported Rickey, as detailed in “Clemente.” “In 1956 he can be sent out on option by Pittsburgh only by first securing waivers, and waivers likely cannot be secured. So, we are stuck with him–stuck indeed, until such time as he can really help a major league club.”

The Pirates were indeed “stuck” with Clemente for 18 years, where he captured four batting titles, a World Series and National League MVP award and 12 Gold Glove awards, setting the standard for right fielders. There have been a dozen or so forays attempting to chronicle the life and premature death of Clemente since his tragic passing on New Years Eve in 1972, but nothing comes remotely close to Maraniss in detail, research, crisp writing and revealing angles.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of Vince Lombardi’s “When Pride Still Mattered,” Maraniss explores the inspirational and multi-cultural side of Clemente. Like Jackie Robinson, Clemente endured racism and hate as the first Latin American superstar.

“Memory and myth are entwined in the Clemente story,” writes Maraniss. “He has been dead for more than three decades, yet he remains vivid in the sporting consciousness while other athletes come and go, and this despite the fact that he played his entire career in relative obscurity, away from the mythmakers of New York and Los Angeles. Forty public schools, two hospitals, and more than two hundred parks and ball fields bear his name, from Carolina, Puerto Rico, where he was born, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he played, to far-off Mannheim, Germany.

“In the world of memorabilia, the demand for anything Clemente is second only to Mickey Mantle, and far greater than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, or any other black or Latin players.”

Clemente wasn’t entirely virtuous–he had a temper and was sometimes given to pouting–a characteristic that did not endear him to reporters. But his altruism appears to have been a genuine product of his impoverished Puerto Rican upbringing that ultimately led to his ill-fated attempt to bring badly need supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

The final days of Clemente’s life are detailed methodically by Maraniss. The author reveals that the plane Clemente took never should have left the runway due to numerous violations, a lack of sleep by the pilot and an unqualified flight crew. The search for Clemente’s body included teammate Manny Sanguillen, who refused to give up, “churning and bobbing in the dismal sea.”

Clemente’s mantra has helped pave the way for today’s wealth of talented Latin American ballplayers. “If you have a chance to help make life better for others, and fail to do so,” he said, “you are wasting your time on this earth.”