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18 december 2007

I am very, very slowly getting "caught up" with major recent baseball biographies. Now that I've read David Maraniss's Clemente, I've read most of the best-sellers through 2006, and it's not even 2008 yet. I would feel almost ahead of the game, except that I know seven or eight new titles will appear for Spring Training and put me hopelessly in arrears again. I'm glad I finally caught up to Clemente, though, an intriguing and affecting look at the life of the great Puerto Rican right fielder.

Clemente is an oddly structured biography. Its sense of chronology expands and contracts, slows down or speeds up, as we reach salient stories. All biographies do this to some extent – some parts of the subject's life are simply what they're famous for and what we want to hear more about – but Clemente chooses some off-center episodes to concentrate on.

In particular, the book slows almost to a crawl to tell the story of the 1960 National League season, and then stops altogether for an almost pitch-by-pitch narrative of the 1960 World Series. This is all good – the 1960 Series is one of the fabled Classics – but the problem is that Roberto Clemente was not particularly central to that Series. He led his Pittsburgh Pirates in RBI during the regular season and was certainly one of their key players, but the Series heroes were pitchers Vern Law and Harvey Haddix, clutch hitters Hal Smith and Bill Mazeroski. Clemente, ever after, would feel cheated because he finished eighth in the 1960 MVP voting, and Maraniss sympathizes with him. But as reviewer Steve Treder has pointed out, Clemente was about the 8th-best player in the league that year.

Maraniss spends a great deal of time on the 1954 Montréal Royals (Clemente's first team in organized ball), a huge amount of time on the 1960 Pirates, and very little on the Pittsburgh clubs that came in between, while Clemente was earning his professional spurs slowly against major-league pitching that sometimes outmatched him. Much of the 1960s, in the narrative, is taken up with Clemente's courtship of his wife-to-be Vera Zabala, and after another intensive study of the 1971 World Champion Pirates (where Clemente played a crucial World Series role), we leap forward again to the desperately sad story of Clemente's completely preventable death in the crash of an overloaded relief plane shortly after takeoff from San Juan.

Though Maraniss works hard to capture a sense of Roberto Clemente's importance in Puerto Rican culture, we never get a very strong idea of what the slugger actually did to inspire it. He played hard and won many honors as a major-leaguer; he supported pro baseball in the winter in the Caribbean as player and manager; he talked about, and had begun to organize, some youth-sports initiatives in Puerto Rico. But his legacy as a humanitarian comes largely from his impulsive chartering of a decrepit airplane in an attempt to take supplies to Nicaragua in the aftermath of the 1972 Managua earthquake.

Maraniss charts Clemente's extraordinary generosity (often to young women on whom he had no designs other than unconditional friendship), and at the same time his prickliness, his idées fixes, his sharp leftist critique of segregation and racism, his rare sudden outbursts of violence. He leaves us with more questions than answers about Clemente, and indeed leaves the field wide open for another major biography. Clemente, in effect, needs his Arnold Rampersad, needs an academic biographer who can research and write (in both English and Spanish) a comprehensive critical assessment and interpretation of the hero. And maybe even after such a biography, Clemente will remain the bundle of contradictions that Maraniss found him.

Maraniss, David. Clemente: The passion and grace of baseball's last hero. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.