American Experience: Roberto Clemente

Why does everyone talk about the past? All that counts is tomorrow’s game.

— Roberto Clemente

“Baseball captured Roberto as it did thousands and thousands of young boys in Puerto Rico in that era, because it was what was available.” As David Maraniss notes, Roberto Clemente’s love for baseball was probably inevitable when he was a child during the1940s. And though the author of Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (2006) doesn’t underline it here, the game would be as much transformed by Clemente as he would be transformed by the game. Long before the era of super-agents, Nike endorsements, and multi-million-dollar contracts, Clemente was a baseball celebrity, charismatic, gifted, and hardworking. Beyond that, he was a humanitarian and civil rights activist, proud of his background and generous with his energies.

He was also conflicted and complicated, as demonstrated in Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary, Roberto Clemente, airing as part of PBS’ American Experience series and narrated by Jimmy Smits. Born 18 August 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children, he pursued baseball even as he was working with his father (who was a foreman on a sugar plantation and manager of a grocery store). Clemente took as his role models the black players whose exposure to Puerto Rico’s “relatively relaxed racial climate” granted them brief respite from the still legal racism of the continental U.S. While playing for the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League (LBBPR), he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, who paid him “the unimaginable sum of $5,000.” He was soon drafted away by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Spring training in las Grandes Ligas meant living in Jim Crow Florida, something of a shock for the young right fielder. As writer Juan González observes, Clemente was “coming here as an American. In his own country, he was treated as a black American, as a foreigner. The way he was being identified just didn’t jive with his reality.” Specifically, Clemente was caught in-between the impossible expectations of U.S. racism: while he could not eat in restaurants or stay in hotels with his white teammates, historian Robert Ruck adds, “The black community saw him, and physically he was black to them, but not culturally.”

Tensions in Pittsburgh were different, but also trying. Orlando Cepeda, signed by the San Francisco Giants in 1958, says Clemente “told me that it was very lonely for him because of communication, he couldn’t communicate.” Fans’ responses were initially mixed, and Clemente spent hours after games signing autographs, in part because he felt isolated by teammates and the so-called community. (The film notes that during one of these signing sessions, he met 17-year-old Carol Brezovec Bass, who used her high school Spanish to thank him; her gesture touched him, and the two became lifelong friends.) Though the film doesn’t offer details (or explore at all the tensions that existed among teammates), Pirate Al Oliver says vaguely, “It had a lot to do with not being around: if you’re not around a certain group of people, then you form opinions.”

More pronounced and easier to document, Clemente’s relationship with “Pittsburgh’s hard-bitten press” was built on conventions of the day. Journalists regularly mocked Latino players’ efforts to speak English (transcribing interviews phonetically, as in, “I heet ball good”) or ignored life stories in their reporting. In turn, the film observes, Clemente did not follow “unspoken rules for the professional athlete,” and instead spoke openly about his concerns, his injuries, and his life. “Before long,” Smits says over images of Clemente on a massage table or receiving treatment, he “acquired a reputation as an oversensitive hypochondriac,” discussing his insomnia, inability to put on weight, and even his interests in solutions that were “New Age before there was new Age,” his use of a masseuse and “odd concoctions of shakes.” He did not fit the masculine stoic, Gary Cooper-like masculine ideal of the time. “He played hard all the time,” George Will observes, “but he talked all the time about how hard it was to do what he did.”

It was Clemente’s play that earned him respect, of course. Though the film doesn’t detail the many steps in his career, it does underscore that he led the Pirates to two underdog triumphs in the World Series, in 1960 (upsetting the Yankees in seven games) and again in 1971 (against the Orioles). The documentary notes his dismay when he did not win MVP in 1960; Maraniss reports that when Clemente finished eighth in the voting, he “felt that he’d been done in by racism.” (The film barely remarks that he did win MVP in 1966, hitting .317 and setting career highs in home runs [29] and RBIs [119].) Still, the game was changing. Robert Clemente sets his story in a broader context, noting the increase in Latino players and fans. For them, Clemente transcended baseball. Will describes the situates carefully: “He was a cauldron of energy, representing the upward mobility of people who had hitherto been excluded.” Over a partial team photo from 1971, featuring mostly players of color, the film notes cryptically that the mix affected the Pirates’ popularity. Teammate Manny Sanguillén recalls that in 1971, “We weren’t thinking about color or anything like that. What we wanted was to win.” And so they did: during the Series, the 37-year-old Clemente hit .414 and afterwards, he famously addressed his parents in Spanish during a television interview.

Clemente’s transcendence extended far beyond baseball on the occasion of his tragic death. His interest in the U.S. civil rights movement had led him to follow Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, as he took part in public demonstrations. “Celebrity did not dull his sensitivity to injustice,” reads Smits, “If anything, it sharpened it.” When an earthquake devastated Nicaragua in December 1972, he organized efforts to help, and boarded an overloaded, aging DC-7 on New Year’s Eve. One of the engines exploded immediately after take-off and the plane went down in the ocean; Clemente’s body was never recovered.

Ruck says that at before he died, Clemente was “making a transition from ballplayer to a statesman,” making plans for post-baseball activism. Roberto Clemente honors this legacy by focusing on his experiences in racist America and his efforts to effect change over his short lifetime.

RATING 8 / 10