Pulitzer-winner Maraniss shares Roberto Clemente’s mythology

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Roberto Clemente’s life was one of graceful athleticism and personal adversity. A black Puerto Rican, Clemente emerged from the cloud of racism that enveloped the United States in the Jim Crow-era to become one of the greatest right fielders in Major League Baseball history. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Davis Maraniss relayed the Pittsburgh Pirate’s inspiring story yesterday to a small but attentive crowd in Salomon 101.

Maraniss, associate editor of the Washington Post and author of “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero,” as well as a best-selling biography of former President Bill Clinton and an account of the Vietnam War, delivered the seventh-annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture in honor of Casey Shearer ’00, a promising writer and aspiring sports journalist who died days before he was to graduate from Brown.

The lecture – entitled “The Mythology of Sport” – followed the life and tragic death of Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente. Maraniss recounted Clemente’s entrance into and graceful domination of Major League Baseball amid social and political turmoil.

“Clemente was art, not science,” Maraniss said. “Trying to describe him by reducing him to statistics – which is baseball’s way – is like analyzing van Gogh’s paintings by writing about the chemicals in the paint.”

Clemente made his Major League debut in 1955 with the Pittsburgh Pirates after a stint with the Montreal Royals, the same team Jackie Robinson played for in 1946 before breaking the league’s color barrier. Five years later, Clemente led the Pirates to a shocking seven-game world series victory over the mighty New York Yankees of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, recording a hit in each game of the series.

“After the seventh game, he flew home to San Juan, and he was literally carried off from the airport on the shoulders of his countrymen,” Maraniss said. “He was regaled as the ‘Prince of Puerto Rico’ all winter.”

But his reception in the United States was marred by racial tension. Clemente felt he wasn’t receiving enough media attention for his accomplishments, and the Pirates’ held a celebration in a Florida hotel reserved only for whites.

“The only blacks allowed in there were the waiters,” Maraniss said, adding that the team’s annual spring golf outing was held at a country club that prohibited blacks.

Maraniss captured Clemente’s struggle against racism in America through the star’s portrayal in the Pennsylvania sports media, which patronized Clemente’s thick Latin American accent by spelling his quotes phonetically – “eef” for “if” and “heet” for “heat.”

“Clemente was an incredibly proud, intelligent person who was reduced to a caricature, a stereotype by American culture,” Maraniss said. “That created in him a beautiful fury.”

Maraniss’s personal relationship with Clemente – a man with whom he never spoke – shone through endearingly as he told anecdotes from the baseball star’s life.

“He got his great arm not from his dad – a little guy, short – but from his mother, a butcher,” Maraniss said. “She could haul 90-pound slabs of beef on her shoulder.”

Maraniss recalled Clemente’s interactions with teammate Victor Pellot, known as “Vic Power,” a fellow Puerto Rican baseball player who shared his struggles with racism.

“(Pellot) once went into a restaurant for lunch in Florida. The waitress came up to him and said ‘We don’t serve colored people here,’ and he said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t eat colored people. I just want some rice and beans,’ ” Maraniss said. “He could almost get Clemente to laugh at some of those jokes, but Clemente did not think it was funny. He didn’t think any of that was funny.”

Clemente would finally break through the barriers of language and race in 1971 when he led the Pirates to a second World Series victory, this time over the Baltimore Orioles.

Clemente batted an incredible .414 against the Orioles and once again registered a hit in each of the series’ seven games – including a solo home run in the seventh game to give the Pirates the lead – and was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series.

“It was finally his moment. In the dugout after the seventh game, the whole world was looking at Roberto Clemente,” Maraniss said. But instead of responding to reporters’ questions, Clemente answered the press with a message to his family in Puerto Rico, asking for their blessing.

“He said it in Spanish,” Maraniss said. “It was at that moment that he moved from a ball player into mythology.”

Clemente died one year later.

In the winter of 1972, Clemente joined a humanitarian effort to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua suffering under then-president and dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Clemente felt he could use his cachet in Latin America to help aid reach those who needed it, so he took to the skies for Nicaragua and never returned.

“Everything that could possibly be wrong was wrong with his situation,” Maraniss said, describing the conditions of Clemente’s flight: an amateur crew, a 5,000-pound overload and a DC-7 purchased from a part of Miami called “cockroach corner.” The plane crashed shortly after takeoff and sunk into the Atlantic Ocean.

“The next morning, thousands of people lined the shore,” Maraniss said, “thinking that Clemente couldn’t die and would walk out of the sea.”

Maraniss’s storytelling ability and his close attention to detail captivated students who attended the lecture.

“He did a really good job of humanizing Clemente, whom I primarily knew as a baseball player,” said Alex Eichler ’08, who won a literary contest honoring Shearer and was awarded the first prize in a ceremony last night for “Silent Night,” his story about Rhode Island’s haunted houses. “I didn’t know about the social and political context Clemente was in – I’m glad he emphasized those aspects of his life.”

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