- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

CLEMENTE: THE PASSION AND GRACE

OF BASEBALL’S LAST HERO

By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster, $26, 385 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAUDE R. MARX

Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente meets the criteria for being called a hero. His stellar on-field performances, coupled with his exemplary non-professional life, make for a compelling story.

David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, does justice to the complexity of the Hall of Fame right fielder, who died while bringing relief supplies to victims of the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake.

In “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero,” Mr. Maraniss helps bring the baseball great alive for those who never had the privilege of seeing him play. And he brings back fond memories for those of us who did.

In Mr. Maraniss’ book, inspired in part by his recently-deceased father’s admiration for Clemente, the writing is elegant, the research prodigious, the details precise.

In describing how Clemente looked when he was wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, the author writes, “That was all he would wear in the hotel room, his sculpted mahogany torso at age 38 still evoking a world-class ballet dancer, with muscled shoulders rippling down to a narrow waist, 30 inches, the same measurement he had as a teenager, and powerful wrists, and hands so magical they were said to have eyes at their fingertips.’

There is extensive treatment of Clemente’s on-field accomplishments, including his Golden Glove awards and his role in helping the Pirates win two World Series. The first of those wins, in 1960 against the heavily favored New York Yankees, helped cement Clemente’s reputation as a superstar. Forty-six years later, Pittsburgh residents still talk about that David-versus-Goliath matchup as if it happened yesterday.

Though Mr. Maraniss did not attend any of Clemente’s games, he recreates them from newspaper accounts and by talking to people who were there. His skill as a social historian come into play when he describes Pittsburgh’s woes and feelings of inferiority in the face of the more glamorous and economically vibrant New York City.

For all of Clemente’s playing skills and his enigmatic personality, he was often overlooked by the media in part because he kept a low profile. “Everyone was in on the action, it seemed, except the Pirate in the middle of the lineup who roamed right field. Roberto Clemente was indisputably an important member of the team, yet also in many ways alone,’ Mr. Maraniss writes. “In the run up to the World Series, the writers in Pittsburgh and New York, for all of their overwrought coverage of the spectacle, gave Clemente barely a passing glance.’

Mr. Maraniss’ literary nonfiction skills are in ample evidence here. Time and again he gives the reader a rich sense of place, character and historical context. When discussing the racial discrimination that Clemente, a black Puerto Rican, experienced in the 1950s South, the author writes, “The white players and their families relaxed at beaches and pools where black teammates could not go … There was a designated ‘colored night’ at the Lee County (Florida) Fair when white residents stayed away.’

Sometimes, however, Mr. Maraniss goes a bit overboard and takes readers on tangents that are interesting but slow down the narrative. In the chapter describing the region in Puerto Rico where Clemente grew up, we are given a mini-history of the sugar industry there that may be more than the average reader wants to know.

The author’s attention to detail serves us well, however, when he chronicles the troubled past of the charter air company that operated the plane that Clemente was aboard when he was killed. Mr. Maraniss reviewed Federal Aviation Administration records, spoke to an array of regulators and aviation experts and recreates the weather conditions on that fateful day. His book includes accounts of the plane’s mechanical problems, the checkered past of the company’s owner, and details of the pilot’s lack of sufficient sleep in the days before the flight.

The book tells a fascinating life story with considerable drama. While baseball fans will find much to savor, “Clemente” is more than a conventional sports book and should find a broader audience.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the recently-published book, “The Divided States of America.’

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