|Roberto Clemente's charitable work would lead to his early death at age 38. (AP IMAGES)|
We live in the ESPN age, when even a salami-swinging journeyman can make the nightly highlight reel. With every new "Web gem," baseball's pre-video legends slip further into the background, reduced to choppy, black-and-white clips and the testimonies of bow-tied, PBS-tested talking heads. Sure, grampy tells us Ted Williams and Willie Mays were special. But can we really understand how those players revolutionized the game?
Tonight's one-hour "American Experience" film, "Roberto Clemente," should at least educate those poor Yankees fans who recently booed reliever LaTroy Hawkins out of his No. 21 jersey. Hawkins wanted to honor his hero, Clemente. The Bronx faithful were horrified that anybody might dare model the number once worn by Paul O'Neill, the solid but hardly spectacular former Yankees outfielder (lifetime average: .288). Let's hope a few of the boo birds are watching tonight.
The Clemente story begins in Puerto Rico, where a boy, the youngest of seven children, watches with admiration as the American stars of the day suit up to play winter ball. Clearly gifted, Clemente, at just 20, heads to Florida as the property of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is 1955, only eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Spring training is an eye opener. Here, Clemente discovers that his dark skin will force him to stay at a separate hotel from his teammates. His accent will earn him ridicule.
"He told me he was very lonely," says Orlando Cepeda, the longtime Giants star who was also from Puerto Rico. "That's why we have two strikes, being black and being Latin."
On paper, Clemente's accomplishments are stunning, from his four batting titles to his 12 Gold Gloves. But the documentary doesn't dwell on stats. Through interviews and some wonderfully slowed-down highlights, it makes a great point. Clemente, filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz argues, was different, both on and off the field.
He talked honestly and openly about his injuries at a time when ballplayers were expected to self-medicate (see: Mantle, Mickey) or simply shut up. He threw himself around the field with abandon. He took pride in his homeland and his native tongue and he was driven to do good. That quality would lead to his early death.
Clemente doesn't brood or sulk on the field. He was a classic five-tool player (speed, ability to hit for average and power, and to throw and field) who could make the act of breaking up a double play compelling viewing. Those of you who have made peace with Manny Ramirez's lapses of effort should pay particular attention to one play shown from the 1971 World Series. Clemente hits a bouncer back to the pitcher but, by hustling, just beats a wild throw by Oriole Mike Cuellar.
All the while, Clemente's greater sense of purpose drives him to speak out against racism and to start youth baseball camps in Puerto Rico. Inevitably, we arrive at the last day of 1972. At an airport in San Juan, Clemente, then 38, boards a rickety DC-7 bound for earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. The plane crashes into the ocean soon after takeoff and, just like that, baseball loses its first Latin star.