Clemente family publishes loving tribute of 'Undying Hero'
Baseball's storied history is full of “heroes” who were, in retrospect, flawed and troubled men, from Mickey Mantle to Pete Rose to Roger Clemens. The roster of heroes whose off-the-field lives matched their exploits on the diamond is vanishingly small.
Then there's Roberto Clemente. In the years since his plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico while he was delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, he has become about as close as baseball has to a saint. (Certainly, he's in the ballpark somewhere with Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig and not many others).
The writers who dogged him early in his career — questioning his injuries, attitude and garbling his syntax — have been discredited if not forgotten. The Clemente stories that keep emerging — as told in books, documentaries, feature films, even a recent graphic novel — only seem to reinforce his legacy as a ballplayer, humanitarian and essentially decent human being.
“Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero,” which comes out Sept. 24, was written by the Clemente family, which includes his widow, Vera Clemente, and sons Roberto Jr., Ricky and Luis Clemente (with help from CBSSports.com writer Mike Freeman).
At first glance, it seems like an attempt “to set the record straight.”
It's not really, though. That “True Legacy” subtitle isn't implying that others' recollections are false.
“No, I've been happy with (other books),” Vera Clemente says. “This time, we just decided to have something (of our own) published, you know?”
Instead, it's simply a very personal, intimate recollection of the ballplayer — and the man behind the legends.
The book is more of a family photo album, full of reminiscences and rarely seen photos, interspersed with occasional stories. It can easily be read in an evening, but many of the photos invite further perusal.
Vera Clemente can't pick a favorite, but it's easy to guess what kinds of photos she likes.
“There are many,” she says. “The ones, especially where he's with the children, with our boys. At the stadium, he always made time to take care of the children.”
There are some startling recollections in the book, like a meeting between Roberto and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I didn't know (Roberto) then, but he used to talk about that experience,” Vera says. “Yes, they kept in touch. He told me, after we met, the whole story.”
Memories and stories from Clemente's closest friends on the Pirates also are plentiful. These include pitcher Steve Blass, trainer Tony Bartirome and catcher Manny Sanguillen — who dove into the sea in a forlorn attempt to find his missing friend's body.
Luis Clemente also recalls his own short baseball career, in the inevitable shadow of his father.
It's long been tempting to imagine what Clemente would have accomplished had his life not been cut short. Clearly, he had some good years left in him, baseball-wise. The book presents another fascinating “what if” scenario — Clemente was tormented by terrible injuries from a car crash, and struggled to get enough sleep.
“He had real bad insomnia,” Vera says. “We stayed up all night. ... At 5 o'clock in the morning, we'd put everything away and go to sleep. I'd accompany him all night long. He'd get tired, sleepy, but we always stayed up very late. One thing he missed was the whole morning, Saturday mornings.”
Of course, the racism and condescension he faced as one of the first Latin major leaguers was another limitation, though it couldn't stop him on the field. It did show up in strange and annoying ways. For example, there was an effort among some baseball writers and even baseball-card manufacturers to Anglicize his name into “Bob Clemente.”
“With everything I've been told, he was very proud of his Latin heritage, and therefore didn't want to have everything Americanized,” says Chuck Berry, president of the Roberto Clemente Foundation, who was present for the interview with Vera Clemente. “He wanted to be known as Roberto.”
Clemente's legacy lives on, not only in the memory, but in the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team.” The nominees, one from each team, were announced earlier this week. The winner will be announced during the World Series. The Pirates' nominee is Andrew McCutchen.
Vera Clemente is an official goodwill ambassador for Major League Baseball, and is working on refurbishing the “sports city” in Puerto Rico that her husband dreamed of building, but never got to see.
“We're in the process to start remodeling again, to build some new facilities,” Vera says. “We've had many successes with the sports, with the training of youngsters. (There's) baseball, football, track and field, a swimming pool for the handicapped.”
Vera and the family keep in touch with the Pirates, and still follow the team's fortunes.
“Yes, every year, we go and visit for special events,” says Vera Clemente. “Pittsburgh is our second home.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.