Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Roberto Clemente

An article appeared recently in the Washington Post called The Last Hero by Dave Maraniss , from his book on Roberto Clemente that will be published later this month. It was about Clemente as an enduring hero throughout Latin America. It's a very moving piece, not only for what it says Clemente continues to represent, some 34 years after his death, but what he had to endure as a Latino in major league baseball in the 1950s until 1972, when his small plane was lost as he tried to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

But even though I am not Latino, Roberto Clemente was a hero to me. He played his entire major league career for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I grew up about 35 miles from the city. I saw him play at Forbes Field several times, watched the televised games and listened to many, many games on the radio, in the late 50s and early 60s.

He had a rough time in Pittsburgh, where he caught more criticism for his physical complaints than a white player would. But Pittsburghers also loved him, regardless of race. Especially young boys like me. I met him on the field once. He shook my hand but didn't really look at me---it was one of those before the game events, with the players lined up, and young boys gathered around to meet their favorites. I went right to him. His indifference shook me a little, so I was really touched when I shook hands with center fielder Bill Virdon, and he looked me in the eye and said, "hello, son."

But the experience didn't diminish my awe of Clemente. He was a great artist on the field, almost a magician. He had such style and individuality. He made basket catches in right field. He had a throwing arm that was amazing and deadly. He was fast in the field and on the bases. At the plate he fairly often would swing so hard at a pitch that his batting helmet would fly off, and the cap underneath it as well. He might even fall down. And then scorch the next pitch into the outfield gap.

I remember that day on the field, as I remember Forbes Field and the sea of vendors outside the park in Oakland (the Pitt library is there now) with complete clarity. But the most memorable moment concerning Clemente in a game is one I remember only partially, in a few images. It was a night game, going into extra innings. My recollection is that it was the tenth inning. I was getting a bit sleepy, but somebody got on base in the bottom of the tenth, and Clemente was up.

Clemente seldom swung at the first pitch, or if he did, it was the helmet flying off and falling down swing. Everybody in the park knew this. So as he came to the plate, there was still a kind of gathering ourselves for the real battle of pitcher and batter after the first pitch.

But the first pitch was delivered and then it all happened in a flash. The smack of the bat on the ball and then what sounded like a cannon shot, everyone around me standing up, a tremendous roar. For a moment I couldn't see what happened. I jumped up just in time to see the winning run score, and Clemente already near second base. In right field there was what looked like a cloud of smoke coming from the right field fence. It was chalk dust. The foul line was chalked onto the wall, and Clemente had hit the ball so hard to the opposite field that it hit the chalk line and the dust was still drifting across the stadium as everyone turned to leave. It was like the smoke of a cannon. The game was over, just like that.

Though I'd heard Italian at home, the first Spanish words I learned were Vamos, Arriba or just aribba, aribba as pronounced by our beloved play-by-play announcer, Bob Prince. He had a nickname for every Pirate player, and Clemente's was Arriba, which Prince translated as Rise up, Let's go. So a Clemente home run would sound like this: "A long drive to right, it's way back, way back --and you can kiss it goodbye! Arriba! Arriba! Home run for Bobby Clemente!"

Some people made fun of Clemente because of his accented English. But although Bob Prince anglicized his name in play-by-play, as Bob Cle-menty, he often would ritually pronounce it in reasonable Spanish, at his first plate appearance for example, as Ro-buer-to Cle-mente-tay. It was affectionate and respectful and sounded special, and that's the impression that kids like me listening to the radio received.

I saw Clemente play in the 1960 World Series (though I won the right to buy tickets in the lottery for seats, I was designated game 6, an abysmal loss to the Yankees), but like everybody who lived there, I remember exactly where I was when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run that won it in the seventh game. When I met August Wilson in 1990 or so, one of the few memories we shared (he grew up in a black neighborhood of the city, while I was in a small town an hour's bus ride away) was of the Pirates, Clemente and that World Series.

When I went away to college and other matters later absorbed my attention, I didn't keep up with the Pirates,though I remember Clemente's most glorious World Series in 1971, partly because the Pirates beat the favored Baltimore Orioles, and my Maryland cousins were Orioles fans. (Marannis points out that when Dock Ellis pitched, the 1971 Pirates were the first to field a team made up entirely of black and Latino players.)

I hadn't been to a game in years, but I did see Clemente play one of his last games, at the end of the season in New York, against the Mets. I remember he got a hit, though I don't think it was the last one, the 3000th. But I was sitting on the first base side and I remember watching him on first base, and remembering.

Clemente's legacy in Puerto Rico is incalculable. Outside the new baseball park in Pittsburgh is a bronze Clemente statue. You get to the park by crossing the Clemente Bridge. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately after his death.

He's still a hero to me. The only baseball bat I still have is a Roberto Clemente model. But he should be a hero to many in my generation, for his style, his achievements on and off the field, his character and steadfast commitment. The more than I learn about him, the more I admire him. This article begins to tell why he is still a hero, to me, and to many others around the world.

UPDATE: One of my Maryland cousins, Richard, who I went with to at least one Pirates game at Forbes Field when Clemente played, sent me this reminicence from the 1971 World Series:

I remember the first game of the 71 series. Irene [his wife] and I went to the game and sat behind third base, with a perfect view. DonBuford the first batter of the first game hit a shot into the right field corner, took a wierd bounce off the wall, Clemente fielded the ball as Buford rounded second for third. In one motion Clemente wheeled and fired a one hopper to third, the ball was perfect one hop strike as Buford slid into the tag. Out # one of the series , message sent!

He adds: "Baseball truly does mark the passing of time, as James Earl Jones said in the Field of Dreams. Where's the over 50 League? And a Louisville Sluggermade of wood. I'm ready for a bloop and a blast!

"A bloop and a blast", I should add, was another of Bob Prince's on-air sayings, when the Pirates were down a run or two, and with a bloop single and a home run, could tie or win.

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