Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente stands next to statue of himself before a 1970 game against the Astros.
A duet with one of my heroes and friends, David Maraniss, who aside from winning Pulitzer Prizes and writing brilliant presidential biographies, wrote the magnificent book “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” David’s words are in italics.
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There are baseball names with magic in them. DiMaggio. Koufax. Mickey Mantle. Clemente. This magic is not an easily quantifiable thing. Something about the syllables, the arrangement of consonants and vowels, the way the name sounds triggers a sensation, a consciousness that sparks beyond simple memory, a door opening. Certain songs do the same thing.
The funny thing is that the songs that open my memory are rarely my favorite songs or what I would consider the best songs. U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an infinitely better song than John Cougar’s “Ain’t Even Done With The Night,” but when I hear the latter I am transported to 1981 and a crowded swimming pool with pretty girls wearing two-piece swimsuits and geeky guys trying to look tough. It is brilliantly sunny. The air smells like barbecue. This is a wonderful but entirely involuntary journey. I love the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” so much more, but when I hear it, I only hear it.
Clemente, just those three syllables, inspires a whirl of grainy color images, a fierce right-handed swing at a neck-high pitch, a man running the bases as if he’s out of control, as if he’s running down a hill too steep, a man in the outfield chasing after a rolling baseball, gloving it, twirling, unleashing a throw with so much force that it garbles the mind for just an instant — something about the power of that throw just seems a little bit off, a little bit impossible.
The name Clemente opens a time portal. It launches us into the 1971 World Series, when no Baltimore pitcher could get him out. It transports us to 1961 when Clemente, furious about how unappreciated he was, decided to win a batting title and then, through sheer force of will, won a batting title. It transports us even to a time before memory, even for those of us too young to have seen him play.
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I grew up in Wisconsin, rooting for the Milwaukee Braves, loving Aaron and Covington and Bruton and Spahnie and Mathews and Adcock, but nonetheless Clemente was my favorite player, with Vic Power a close second. I thought he was the coolest thing I had ever seen – the way he looked in a uniform, the way he walked to the plate, the way he rolled his neck, his looping underhand throws to second and his rifle shots to third and home. We all have someone in childhood, and not necessarily an athlete, that we connect to in some magical way, and for me it was Clemente. I even loved the fact that he was called a hypochondriac. I could identify with that; I am one.
But there are other athletes I loved that I would never write about. Lombardi was it for football; no interest in any other coach, and Clemente it for baseball. And the truth is I would not have written the Clemente book if it was only about his baseball abilities, which is, as it should be, the only thing that concerns your rankings. 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 fact that he was growing as a human being late in his career, the opposite trajectory of most athletes, and of course his dramatic death – those all compelled me to write the book, even as my childhood love of him drew me to him in the first place.
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The Milwaukee Braves wanted Roberto Clemente most. The Braves were shrewd operators — in a seven-year span they signed Johnny Logan, Wes Covington, Del Crandall, Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron and traded for Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette and Joe Adcock. Throw in Warren Spahn and this was the fantastic nucleus of a team that would win back-to-back pennants and, in retrospect, probably should have won a lot more.
In 1954, the Braves wanted Clemente, who was playing for Santurce in the Puerto Rican League. Well, three teams wanted him — the Braves, the Giants and the Dodgers. It is telling how only National League teams were actively trying to sign Clemente; this was a sign of the times. The Yankees were not only the dominant team in the American League, they were also the overwhelming power determining how baseball in the league was played … and in would still a be a full year before the Yankees had a black player. In fact, the Senators, Tigers and Red Sox had also not used a single black player. Clemente, as a dark-skinned player from Puerto Rico, was not a viable option for about half the teams in baseball.
Remember, this was SEVEN YEARS after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
The Braves were said to have offered the most money for Clemente, but he signed with the Dodgers for $15,000 — $5,000 of it salary, $10,000 a signing bonus. In later years, Clemente would say he signed with the Dodgers because he wanted to play in New York, where there was a large Puerto Rican population. There is clarity in this. There is less clarity, though, in why the Dodgers signed him and, quickly, lost him.
The baffling rules of the time made Clemente a bonus baby, meaning that because the Dodgers had signed him for so much money that they had to keep him on the Major League roster or risk losing him in an offseason draft the following year. The Dodgers were shrewd about Bonus Babies. Later that very year of 1954, as reported in The Sporting News, the Dodgers signed “a big Brooklyn Jewish boy” for $20,000. They did keep Sandy Koufax on their major league roster.
But the Dodgers did not keep Clemente, exposing him to the following year’s draft. Why not? There have been numerous theories. One is that the Dodgers did not want Clemente as much as they just wanted to keep Clemente away from their rival Giants. Another is that they thought they could hide Clemente in Montreal and other teams would simply miss his talent. Clemente hit just .257 with no power his one year in Montreal … and because half of baseball wasn’t even watching, the Dodgers gamble might not have been as silly as it would later seem. As it turned out, though, Branch Rickey had the first pick in the draft as vice-president of the Pirates, and obviously he didn’t care about the color of Clemente’s skin.
“We know he can field, run and throw,” Rickey said happily after selecting Clemente in the draft. “He has power for sure.”
Sadly, it is likely that the Dodgers — the team that broke the color barrier — did not keep Clemente on the big-league roster PRECISELY because of the color of his skin. At the time, the Dodgers had four dark-skinned players who were more or less in the everyday lineup — Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella, second baseman Junior Gilliam and Cuban outfielder Sandy Amoros — and Don Newcombe was in their starting rotation. Even for the most progressive baseball team, this was pushing the very limits of 1950s desegregation. To keep Clemente would have meant releasing a white player, probably Shotgun Shuba, who had homered in his only at-bat in the 1953 World Series.
SABR’s Stew Thornley wrote that he got an email from former Dodgers Vice President Buzzie Bavasi ten years ago explaining that the team had asked Jackie Robinson what to do. According to Bavasi, Robinson had said that replacing Shuba or any other white player with a young black Latin like Clemente would be “setting our program back five years.”
All of which makes it so much more interesting to think about what might have happened if Clemente had signed with the Braves instead of the Dodgers. That would have meant having Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield. The mind boggles.
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I have to be honest and say that when I am rooting for a team – the Brewers, the Packers, the Badgers in basketball – the first thing I care about is the winning. If I happen to love the way they play, so much the better, but it does come second to winning, at least while the games are being played and the season is on.
But later, after it is over, and in all other cases where I am watching a sport outside of that temporal rooting interest, all I care about are the moments of uncommon beauty and skill and will. Those are the things that add meaning to life, and last so much longer in our memories than winning. Clemente won and he played a beautiful game. As a young player and an old one, he led his team to pennants and world championships. Overcoming race and language, he became the undisputed leader of the Pirates, something that WAR and all the other statistics utterly fail to measure, just as in the matter of joy and beauty they fail to measure the thrill of watching him go the wall and uncork a rope to third. If I had to pick a team, I would want Clemente in right. That is enough for me. I once spoke to Henry Aaron’s foundation for kids and he was there and I told him I loved him and the Braves but that if the Braves had signed Clemente, as they almost did, Mr. Aaron you would have been playing left. He laughed and shook his head in affirmation.
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Phil: Will you stop with Roberto Clemente? Henry Aaron was the greatest right fielder of our generation.
Ed: Could he run like Clemente? Could he throw like Clemente?
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The wonder of Clemente is that, if you are being honest, his game was not elegant in the way that, say, DiMaggio’s game was elegant or the way Aaron’s game was elegant. He was a jarring cloud of angles — elbows, knees, shoulders, all of them going in different directions, an asterisk in motion. In the language of Hollywood, he was not conventionally beautiful. And, like Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn and Kathleen Turner and others in Hollywood, Clemente simply redefined what beauty means.
His beauty was in the passion with which he played. He ran the bases as if intending to swallow them whole. He threw with such power, people in the crowd would swear hearing the ball whistling through the air. He swung at every kind of pitch in every possible location; nothing would keep him from hitting baseballs.
Clemente’s passion was transparent in every move he made on the baseball diamond. So was his fury. His early years in the Major Leagues were peppered with misunderstanding and frustration and anger. In 1956 alone, he was fined $25 by manager Bobby Bragan for missing a sign. Several times, he was admonished for not running out fly balls. He ran through a third-base coach’s sign (scoring the winning run). sparking headlines. He was fined for missing a steal sign, though the fine was rescinded after a talk with Bragan. And so on.
And he complained. Lord, did Clemente complain. He complained about not feeling right. He complained about pain. He complained about playing when he wasn’t at his best. He complained about sportswriters mocking what they called his hypochondria. More than anything, he complained about the treatment of Latin players. Some of his complaints were well-founded and helped alter the landscape. And some … were just complaints.
“You writers are all the same,” he shouted at the Pittsburgh Press’ Phil Musick the first time they spoke and many times after that. “You don’t know a damn thing about me.”
“Anger for Roberto Clemente,” Press columnist Roy McHugh wrote later, “is the fuel that makes the wheels turn in his never-ending pursuit of excellence. When the supply runs low, Clemente manufactures some more.”
Rage, of course, is the food of pioneers. It is what kept Jackie Robinson going when the death threats mounted. It is what spurred Jim Brown to get up no matter how hard he was hit. It was what kept Charlie Sifford coming to the golf course again and again and again even when people asked him to shine their shoes. Clemente was, of course, was an open heart, a generous spirit … his heroic final mission to bring supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake defined the man’s true nature. But the ballplayer who found his English mocked, who was called a malingerer, who was ever aware of the cliche made of himself and other Latin ballplayers — that ballplayer fed on rage so he could come back year after year to hit .300 and leg out doubles and triples, and unleash cannon balls from right field.
I deeply love what Phil Musick wrote after the end:
‘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.”
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I think it is unproductive if not mindless to compare athletes from different generations. Everything is different. Diet, training, gene pool, equipment. People can only be assessed and judged in the context of the times in which they live and compete, in any walk of life, and perhaps sports more than most other realms. Statistics offer the illusion of an even way to judge and compare, but it is only an illusion.
Public figures who die young always have a special glow, from Marilyn Monroe to JFK. There is no afterlife, which in sports in particular can be dreary and disappointing. The fact that Clemente not only died young but died in such a heroic way certainly adds to his story and the way he is perceived, and as I said I would not have written a book about him if not for that. But I loved him long before, and it was for the way he played.
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This top 100 began so long ago that, frankly, I barely remember why I started it. But I do remember that it was not because I have any faith in my rankings. I do not. If I started the 100 again tomorrow, the order would be very different and some players would probably be different. It is fun to argue about whether Eddie Collins belongs ahead of Pete Rose, or whether Albert Pujols should be in front of Jimmie Foxx. Silly fun.
But I think I began this because I wanted to write about the 100 or so greatest baseball players ever, wanted to take this journey through baseball history. The rankings are simply the machinery. I put a lot of thought into them, but only as a way to tell their stories.
Of all the players on the list, none defies a ranking more than Clemente. In a way, ranking him at all feels wrong, like caging a butterfly. Bill James ranked him 74th on his Top 100. SABR and the Sporting News ranked him 20th. A few years ago, the fans (and a special committee) voted for baseball’s All-Century team; they voted for 10 outfielders. Clemente was not one of them. In looking over that fan list, I find several other outfielders who I think were bigger oversights.
But it brings us back to the point … Clemente did not walk much. He did not hit for great power. He did hit .317, and he played in an era that stifled offense. He played glorious defense that was left to the beholder to quantify. To rank him 38th, I place him too high. To rank him 38th, I place him too low. None of it matters. There were better players even in his time, but something about the way he played, something about his graceless gracefulness, something about his impossible right arm, something about his heroic ending, something about the music of his name — Cleh … MEN … tay — lifts him in memory. Clemente is a summer song that takes us all back.