May 2006

A charismatic hero

By David Maraniss
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Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente is a player whose undisputed talent, personal charisma and symbolic role as the major leagues' first Latin-American superstar have raised him to almost reverential regard. Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss' Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero is a detailed, well-researched testament to Clemente's intense, all-too-brief life, with focus on his humble Puerto Rican beginnings and his gradual rise to baseball prominence.

Despite extraordinary skills as a hitter and fielder, Clemente was not an immediate star. Originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was somewhat buried in their minor league system, a shy, sensitive man struggling to communicate in a new language, before making his National League debut with the Pirates in 1955, for whom he would play his entire career. Often enduring the criticisms of reporters who misunderstood his taciturn moods and, unfairly, made light of his halting English, Clemente persevered to forge Hall of Fame numbers with four batting titles, 3,000 career hits, 12 Gold Glove awards, one National League MVP (1966) and two World Series championships.

Drawing upon previously published material, fresh interviews with teammates and even transcribed excerpts from radio broadcasts, Maraniss exposes us to a generally clean-living, family-centered individual, who retained fierce pride in his Puerto Rican ancestry, helped pave the way for the eventual huge influx of Latin ballplayers into the U.S. and earned respect through quiet example. The Clemente story is capped by his dramatic death at age 38 in a 1972 cargo plane crash, while en route to Nicaragua to assist the victims of a horrendous earthquake.

Martin Brady writes from Nashville.

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