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David Maraniss

October 12, 2011

David Maraniss – Author, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

Tell us about your book and what attracted you to the idea of writing about Clemente?  

I grew up in Wisconsin with the Milwaukee Braves, and loved the teams of Aaron, Matthews, Spahn, Burton,  et al, but Clemente was always my favorite player.

There was something about the way he looked in his Pirates uniform, the way he walked, the way he worked out the crink in his neck, the way he threw bullets  from right field, his outsiderness as a black Puerto Rican, all of that attracted me to him.

But I decided to write about him for other reasons beyond all of that, because he was that rare human being who was growing as his sporting talents were diminishing, and that he died a heroic death.

What surprised you most in your research of Clemente?

I never answer the question about what surprised me most. I look at the research of a book as an endless series of surprises. If you keep an open mind, it is all new.

What is the biggest misperception people have about Clemente, in your opinion?  

Some people thought he was a complainer, lazy, the stereotypes of a Puerto Rican in that era unfortunately.  He was the opposite. He was a perfectionist, and he was always worrying about his health, a hypochondriac of sorts, but he played more games in a Pirate uniform than any other player in history and always played hard, with a fury.

How was Clemente received early on by fans and players –and how did his race/ethnicity affect that acceptance?

It was not an easy entry for Clemente into the US.

The Pittsburgh sports writers condescendingly quoted  him in broken English. None of them knew Spanish of course. And he did not have his first great season until 1960, five years into his time with the Pirates.

As the years went on, he had to overcome a lot of bias against him. I raised a fuss in Pittsburgh earlier this year by suggesting that not everyone who now say they loved him really did love him back then. I didn’t say that he wasn’t beloved – he certainly was, especially by young people, old people, anyone who came into contact with him. But it took a long time for all of Pittsburgh to accept him as a mythological beloved figure. Really not until he died.

You address Clemente’s health issues (from a 1954 automobile accident) as having a big affect  on his approach at the plate. How so?

His soreness from the back and neck injury never left him.

It is one of the reasons he was always moving his neck as he approached the plate, trying to work out the kinks. It was not just the lingering injury but also the huge outfield at Forbes Field that affected him, and he molded his batting style, not trying to hit home runs, to compensate for that.

What were some of the major issues you attempted to address in the book and why?  

The central themes are, first, the drama of the story of a black Puerto Rican coming to America to make his way, and succeeding, despite all he had to overcome as the first truly great Latino ballplayer, second, the beauty and frustrations of a true athletic artist, and third, the passion and commitment to humanity that distinguished him from most athletes yet led tragically to his death.

What is your impression of how Clemente  was received during his playing days in Pittsburgh and how has that changed now?  

When Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh he had to build his own sense of community. He felt somewhat apart from both the white community and the African American community and the city at the time had an extremely small Latino population. Over the years he was able to bring a diverse group of friends into his life to make him feel more comfortable.

There’s talk of a Clemente movie. What are your thoughts on how they should approach this?  

I hope there is a Clemente movie. His story needs to be told to the largest possible audience. I would want the movie to be realistic, not romanticized propaganda, but present the real man with all of his talents and flaws, and base it in his Puerto Rican heritage, not so much in Pittsburgh.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. johnk59pgh permalink
    December 22, 2011 4:34 pm

    Clemente was my favorite player as a boy – it was a sad day when he died…that’s coming from this Burgh-boy who recognized his special-ness as a young teen. Looking forward to reading the book.

  2. Jerry Lynch permalink
    December 23, 2011 5:45 am

    A little known factoid is that # 21 was ultimately responsible for the retirement of Sandy Koufax after he hit a line drive off the ankle of Koufax while the pitcher was still on one leg after delivering the pitch.

    My favorite Clemente moment was reading a sports headline that said, “Cincinnati 8, Clemente 7.”

  3. Richard Roberts permalink
    December 23, 2011 1:16 pm

    I remember the game Jerry Lynch references in his comment. Clemente hit three homers that night at Crosley Field. Two of my favorite memories of Clemente in action were watching him leg out a triple and seeing him throw out a runner at home. The man had a cannon attached to his right shoulder. My God he could throw a baseball.

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