Clemente, the Double Outsider


Today there is an abundance of Latinos in Major League Baseball, but not when Roberto Clemente took right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates 60 years ago this spring, Michael Beschloss writes in this lovely piece for The New York Times.

Clemente’s ordeal as a Puerto Rican breaking into what was then a very white preserve — and the aplomb with which he transcended his difficulties — reminds us of how far Latinos have come in American life.

Had he lived, Clemente, at the age of 81 this August, would have witnessed the formidable surge of Latinos into the national pastime — a phenomenon he had helped launch.

Born to what he called “the most wonderful mother and father who ever lived” (the latter a foreman in the sugar cane fields), the proud, intense, sometimes melancholy Clemente was discovered at age 18 by the Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis, who later called him “the best free-agent athlete I’ve ever seen.” After signing with the Dodger organization, he was drafted at 20 by the Pirates.

As Rob Ruck wrote in “Raceball” (2011), every player with Latino heritage who was in the majors before Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in 1947 “was either Caucasian or able to pass as such.” (An example of the latter was Ted Williams, who diverted public attention from the fact that his mother was born to Mexican parents.)

Like the Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, who started playing with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, Clemente was not only Latino but also black. Encountering mainland American culture after what he considered to be the more racially harmonious Puerto Rico, he later said he felt like a double outsider. Hank Aaron observed (as quoted by David G. Ogden in the 2008 book “Reconstructing Fame”) that early in Clemente’s career, when he had to improve his English and adjust to American society, “it was probably harder on him than it was on me.”

During one spring training in Florida, when Clemente had to stay on the bus while teammates dined in segregated restaurants, he warned the Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown that he and black teammates (who were also barred from residing in the team’s hotel) would refuse to take the bus “if we can’t eat where the white players eat.” (Brown tried to defuse the problem by finding his black players a station wagon.)

Nor did he feel very welcome in working-class Pittsburgh, where there were few Latinos, and white and black citizens lived largely apart. Unschooled in speaking for a public audience and with English as his second language, he accidentally offended some African-Americans by telling a reporter that after his upbringing in Puerto Rico, he had not been prepared to endure discrimination “like a Negro,” then later defended himself, explaining, “Look at my skin — I am not of the white people.”

After a stellar performance when the Pirates defeated the Yankees in the 1960 World Series, Clemente smoldered when he was denied the award for Series most valuable player. (The winner, Bobby Richardson, remains the only player to receive the award despite being on the losing team.)

After a 1961 interview with Clemente, Howard Cohn wrote in Sport Magazine that Clemente believed that black Latinos “are treated today much like all Negroes were treated in baseball” during the early years after 1947 and that they “bear the brunt of the sport’s remaining racial prejudices.”

In 1964, San Francisco Giants Manager Alvin Dark barred his Latino players from speaking Spanish in their clubhouse, insisting that it would damage team cohesion. This was also the era of the stereotyped Hispanic character Jose Jimenez (played by the comedian Bill Dana, until he finally dropped it, in 1970, after pressure from American Latinos).

From the start, some sportswriters tried to portray Clemente as a similarly ludicrous Mr. Malaprop, speaking “Spanglish.” Les Biederman of The Pittsburgh Press, for example, rendered young Clemente as confiding: “Me like hot weather, veree hot. I no run fast cold weather.” Others had him saying, “Me no married yet.”

Incensed, Clemente complained, “I never in my life start a sentence with ‘me.’ ” As noted in David Maraniss’s 2006 Clemente biography, the Pirates’ Don Leppert was concerned that Roberto was being cast as a “buffoon”; Leppert challenged Biederman, “Why the hell don’t you ask him questions in Spanish?” Ignoring Clemente’s requests to use his actual first name, some reporters Anglicized it throughout his career as “Bob” or “Bobby.”

Clemente was cast as a “chronic complainer” for his occasional tendency to overshare information about his physical maladies (he indeed had spinal problems, the lingering result of a car crash, as well as malaria and other ailments). Myron Cope, writing for Sports Illustrated, was not alone when he said in 1966 that Clemente was “baseball’s champion hypochondriac.”

“Hypochondriacs cannot produce,” Clemente privately responded in fury. “I produce!”

Clemente’s monumental self-possession was sometimes mistaken for conceit. In support of the narrative of Clemente as hot dog, some reporters cited the fact that he had once declared (perhaps trying to convey the depth of his professional commitment), “For me, I am the best ballplayer in the world.”

Stung by such treatment, Clemente generally kept his distance from the press but once bluntly insisted to a reporter that the reason he was treated with such disrespect was “because I’m black and Puerto Rican.” He once told Phil Musick of The Pittsburgh Press, “You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

Thus Clemente immersed himself in a personal world revolving around his extended family, his assiduous work on the baseball diamond — he was a four-time National League batting champion — and the people of Puerto Rico, who exalted him as a hero. He made sure that all three sons born to him and his wife, Vera, were born on the island, where he kept a farm, and was deeply involved in Puerto Rican charities relating to young people and sports.

After Pittsburgh defeated the Orioles in the 1971 World Series, Clemente, who had batted .414, was this time indeed named most valuable player.Speaking in Spanish, he started a live postgame television interview with the Pirates’ announcer, Bob Prince (who referred to him as “Bobby”), by asking for the “blessing” of his parents on his home island, and thanking all Puerto Ricans on “the proudest moment of my life.”

The sportswriter Ira Berkow rightly complained at the time that “out of ignorance or confusion,” Prince “did not ask Clemente to interpret, and the poignant moment was lost in the following button-down clichés from a mayor, a governor, a commissioner, an owner.”

In September 1972, Clemente achieved his 3,000th major league hit in his last time at bat in the regular season.

Three months later, just before Christmas, Clemente, at home in Puerto Rico, was distraught to learn of a disastrous earthquake in Nicaragua, where he coached amateur baseball players. After trying to get help, disgusted by reports that food, medicine and other emergency resources were being mismanaged or stolen, he chartered a DC-7 to fly from San Juan to Managua with relief supplies on New Year’s Eve.

Soon after takeoff, Clemente’s plane disappeared into the Atlantic. His Pirates teammate Manny Sanguillen braved shark-heavy waters to help search for his friend’s remains, which were never found. Clemente had confided to his wife that he always expected to die young.

The following year, the Baseball Hall of Fame suspended its traditional five-year waiting period to admit Clemente; The New York Times pronounced him “the first Latin-American player picked for the museum.”

Musick, the Pittsburgh sportswriter, later said, “When I heard he was dead, I wished that sometime I had told him I thought he was a hell of a guy.”

For the original report go to

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