On December 31, 1972, a DC-7, loaded beyond its maximum capacity, taxied down the runway at San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico. The plane had been chartered by Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker (1934-1972), who set out to deliver supplies to the Central American nation of Nicaragua that was struggling to recover in the wake of a devastating earthquake. There were no survivors and Clemente’s body was never found. He was 38 years of age and left behind a widow Vera (1941-2019) and three sons. He was posthumously inducted in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and his number, 21, was officially retired by the Pirates in 1973. More than forty years have passed since his death, but to this day he is regarded as one of the greatest Latin baseball players to have ever played the game. This is the story of his life by fan and author David Maraniss.
It goes without saying that baseball fans will more than likely be highly interested in this book if they have not previously read it. But even if you are not a baseball aficionado, I firmly believe that you will enjoy this biography of the late star. Personally, I could not put it down and the time flew by as I read through the book. As one would expect, the story begins in Carolina, Puerto Rico where we are introduced to Clemente’s parents, Melchor and Luisa. On August 18, 1934, Roberto enters the world but no one at the time had any idea of the fame and tragedy that laid ahead. If you have been to Puerto Rico or even the Dominican Republic, then you know how important baseball is on those two islands. For young Roberto, baseball quickly became a way of life and before the age of 20, he finds himself already being scouted by the big players in the United States. However, his path to the Pirates was more intricate than has been publicly acknowledged. Maraniss pieces the story together so that we can see how race, money and baseball acumen combined to create a chain of events that resulted in Clemente being signed by the team he would play for during his spectacular career.
Once in the major leagues, his career takes off but off the fields, many other things took place that highlight the strong conviction with which Clemente held his beliefs. In the era of Jim Crow, segregation and horrific discrimination were widespread in the many parts of the United States. The difference in social attitudes between Puerto and the states was not lost on Clemente and his determination to combat racial discrimination is truly one of the best parts of the book and shows why he was and is so revered. Maraniss provides Clemente’s own statements as added emphasis to show the seriousness of his beliefs and actions. And until his final days, he never stopped in is beliefs of equality and the responsibility that we all have to help each other in times of need.
The book is a little heavy on statistics and descriptions of some of Clemente’s best games including the 1971 World Series in which Pittsburgh defeated the Baltimore Orioles four games to three. Batting averages and percentages are found throughout a good portion of the book and readers unfamiliar with baseball might find b studying a quick reference of what each means and its importance. Baseball fans will recognize the importance of each in relation to Clemente’s story. Something that I did learn which added to my view of Clemente, was his physical condition throughout his career. His ability to perform at the professional level in spite of his ailments is nothing short of miraculous and a testament to his durability and strength as a person and professional athlete.
The author does briefly mention Clemente’s service in the United States Marines but does not go into much detail about that which I felt slightly detracted from the book. Clemente served in the Marines from 1958 to 1964, during off-season periods while in the major leagues. He did not see any combat and his service is largely unmentioned in discussions about his life. Perhaps the author did not feel it added much importance to the story and could very well have been the case. But I was surprised that it received scare attention. Regardless, the book is still phenomenal and there is so much to the story that the reader will quickly move forward as Clemente’s life continues to evolve.
Maraniss does his due diligence as a biographer and does not shy away from showing us the dark side of Clemente which manifested itself in some surprising acts. Also highlighted is the morbid vision Clemente had of his own death. Those parts of the book gave me chills and I am sure that for those present at the time he made remarks about his own death, they also must have felt a strange sensation rush through their body. Sadly, his visions came to pass and the story behind how and why his plane crashed shorty after takeoff. And like all crashes, there was no single event that could be blamed for it but a series of events that are outlined by the author. As I read the recreation of the events leading up the crash, I could only shake my head in disbelief and anger. Before he died, Clemente remarked to a friend that no one dies the day before they are supposed to. The words are beyond chilling but also prophetic.
As a sub-story, the events in Nicaragua are worth researching independently of the book. The Somoza regime had been in power for decades and its relationship with the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations are some of the darkest moments of American foreign policy. And although this book is not focused on that subject, the earthquake and its aftermath does bring it to light as Maraniss shows the reaction of Washington amid fears of a political upheaval in the wake of the disaster. Clemente’s decision to go to Nicaragua is both admirable and surprising but he was not one to shy away from what he truly believed in and it shows throughout the entire book.
To say that I enjoyed reading this definitive biography would be a severe understatement. It is one of the best biographies that I have read. If you are interested in the life of Roberto Clemente, this is a great place to start. Highly recommended.
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