A legacy cherished: Remembering Roberto
Hall of Famer synonymous with heroism thanks to charitable spirit, baseball feats
Old film of athletes rarely ages well. You see black and white footage of Bob Cousy dribbling in circles or Jim Brown running over would-be tacklers half his size or Babe Ruth swinging that tree trunk of a bat in what looks like fast-forward speed, and it's hard to connect with their greatness. There's a brilliance and magic about their talents that doesn't quite translate, that does not travel through the years.
But every now and again, there's a rare athlete whose gifts are so beautiful, so pure, so timeless that the crackling video looks as modern and fresh as if it was taken yesterday. Just watch Roberto Clemente throw a baseball.
Just watch him throw in the documentary short "Remembering Roberto."
It looks as beautiful now as it ever did.
"I think it is unproductive, if not mindless, to compare athletes from different generations," says David Maraniss, author of the marvelous "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero." "Everything is different: diet, training, gene pool, equipment. … Statistics offer the illusion of an even way to judge and compare, but it's only an illusion.
"Overcoming race and language, Clemente became the undisputed leader of the Pirates, something that all the statistics utterly fail to measure, just as in the matter of joy and beauty they fail to measure the thrill of watching him go to the wall and uncork a rope to third."
Clemente's story cannot be told enough times. It is at first, as Maraniss says, "the story of a migrant worker, essentially, black, and Latino, the greatest of the first wave and someone who fought against his own pride and fears of mortality, and against the white sporting press establishment and yet somehow emerged beloved."
The baseball press was hard on Clemente in those younger days … and he was hard on them in return. They made fun of his English sometimes. They questioned his effort. They treated him differently than they did white players. He lashed out at them and used the energy to create this whirlwind of a ballplayer.
"Anger for Roberto Clemente," local Pittsburgh columnist Roy McHugh would write, "is the fuel that makes the wheels turn in his never-ending pursuit of excellence. When the supply runs low, Clemente manufactures some more."
He did rage. In this way, he was like one of his heroes, Jackie Robinson. He was unwilling to simply accept what he saw as injustice. He was not one to say nothing.
"You writers are all the same," he shouted at one reporter. "You don't know a damn thing about me."
Over time, he earned the reporters' respect and the fans' respect not only with his glorious play -- the wonderful arm, the line drives, the 166 triples he hit because he always ran out of the box hard -- but because he softened, too. He matured. As the years went along and he became an established star, everyone could see Clemente becoming a more patient, understanding man. He sought to understand positions he did not agree with. He worked hard to help people in need. As Maraniss said, "He was growing as a human being late in his career, the opposite trajectory of most athletes."
Then there was the way Clemente died, tragically, heroically, just months after getting his 3,000th hit, when he went to Nicaragua to help after the terrible earthquake there, and his plane crashed. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame immediately, one of only two men (Lou Gehrig being the other) to have the normal five-year waiting period waived.
We're now 45 years from the date of Clemente's sudden death on Dec. 31, 1972, which came in the service of doing good and has left behind an enduring image of Clemente as a hero. This is as it should be. Every year, the Roberto Clemente Award is given out to the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to the team. The name "Clemente" has become holy. But he should also be remembered as a glorious ballplayer, one of the best who ever lived.
There was never one quite like him. You can talk about the .317 lifetime average, the four National League batting titles, the 12 Gold Glove Awards, the World Series heroics, but really, all you have to do is just watch him throw. That is enough to make you understand just how wonderful he was.
In the days after Clemente died, a Pittsburgh reporter named Phil Musick wrote one of my favorite lines about him.
Musick wrote: "When I heard he died, I wished that sometime I told him I thought he was a hell of a guy. Because he was, and now it's too late to tell him there were things he did on a ball field that made me wish I was Shakespeare."
That's a marvelous thought, this idea of Clemente being so extraordinary to watch that he made a baseball writer wish he had better words to describe it.
But the reason I love that quote so much has little do with that. The reason I love that quote so much is … Musick was the reporter that Clemente shouted at in the clubhouse.