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In a treatise about his own breed, Paul Gallico once said that sports writers are often cynics because they "learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either." But, he warned, "until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something."
Roberto Clemente Walker* of Puerto Rico--the first Latin American to enter baseball's Hall of Fame--was a fascinating human being. And if, as Gallico observes, there are no heroes, there are men who achieve deeds of heroic dimension. Roberto Clemente was one of these gifted few.
*In the United States, "Walker" was incorrectly used as Roberto's middle name. It was actually his second surname. Hispanic people use the surnames of both parents, with "Clemente," the father's, being dominant, followed by "Walker," his mother's maiden name.
"Without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball," says the great Boston slugger Ted Williams. "A .300 hitter, that rarest of breeds, goes through life with the certainty that he will fail at his job seven out of ten times." A baseball is a sphere with a diameter of 2 1/2 inches. The batter stands at home plate and grips a tapering wood cylinder that has a maximum diameter of 2? inches; he tries to defend a strike zone that is approximately seven baseballs wide and eleven high. The pitcher, from 60? feet away, throws the ball at a speed of about 90 miles per hour. As it spins toward the plate--hopping, sinking, or curving--the hitter has four-tenths of one second to decide whether he should let it pass by, jump away toavoid being maimed, or swing. To get "good wood" on it, he must connect squarely with a 1/2-inch portion of the ball's round surface--and then hope that none of the nine defensive players catches it. Roberto Clemente had enormous success in this complex, difficult task. In September, 1972, when he smashed his 3,000th hit, he scaled a peak where only ten other men in the hundred-year history of baseball ever set foot. In his eighteen years as a major league player, he made a memorable impact upon a great sport. A lifetime average of .317, four league batting championships, a Most Valuable Player award, and twelve Golden Gloves for superior defensive play are just a few souvenirs that attest to his marvelous talent. During the 1971 World Series, his devastating tour de force, witnessed by millions on television, at last evoked the national recognition that he felt was long overdue. Roger Angell, in his superb book The Summer Game, says, "Now and again--very rarely--we see a man who seems to have met all the demands, challenged all the implacable averages, spurned the mere luck. He has defied baseball, even altered it, and for a time at least the game is truly his." During that 1971 World Series, and on many other occasions, the game was Roberto Clemente's.
But these great moments cost him dearly. Another famous Latin, Enrico Caruso, once said, "To be great, it is necessary to suffer." As you shall read in the following pages, Roberto Clemente endured severe physical pain and sacrificed a good portion of his life to perfect his skills.
There is much more to a great athlete than the one-dimensional view of his performance on the playing field. Roberto Clemente was a human being like all the rest of us, but when you peel away from each man the frailties that we share, there is a residue that defines each man's uniqueness.
The classical poets of ancient Greece would have rejoiced over Roberto Clemente. Unlike the Goliath-sized supermen of basketball and football, his physique was a nearly perfect match for the "normal" ideal that one sees in time-weathered marble friezes and statues. He was strikingly handsome, with a superbly sculpted body: five feet, eleven inches tall, one hundred and eighty pounds, broad-shouldered with powerful arms and hands, slender of waist, fleet of foot. His simple, traditional values might seem hopelessly naive to the cynic, but they would have inspired the ancient lyricists. He saw himself as a fine craftsman and viewed his craft, baseball, as deserving of painstaking labor. He believed passionately in the virtue and dignity of hard work. He believed, with equal fervor, that a man should revere his parents, his wife and children, his country, and God. But he was not a docile man. He believed just as fiercely in his personal worth and integrity. "From head to toes, Roberto Clemente is as good as the President of the United States," he proclaimed. "I believe that, and I think every man should believe that about himself."
It was this belief that caused Roberto Clemente to become deeply involved during a period of major social change, the 1950's and 1960's, when black and Spanish-speaking people quickened their pace in the struggle for equality. That long march is far from over, but Clemente's brilliance in his craft and his unyielding demands for respect off the field advanced the cause by great distances. His immense pride in his Puerto Rican heritage and in his blackness inspired many others to hold their own heads high.
Those who knew Roberto Clemente--as you will read in these pages--offer an appealing portrait of a remarkable man: a serious artist who wrote his own style of poetry in the air, with powerful strokes of a bat, leaping catches, and breathtaking throws; a man with an enormous well of sentiment, who could inspire tears and could himself be driven to tears by symbolic gestures of kindness and nobility; a man whose temper was quick and terrible like a tropical storm, but who bore no grudge; a man with an almost childlike zest for life, who spoke from the heart and damn the consequences; a man with a very special sense of humor that he shared with only a few friends. But above all, in talking with the people whose lives were touched by Roberto Clemente--in Puerto Rico, in the spring training camp at Bradenton, Florida, in Pittsburgh--one hears of the empathy, the deep concern for others, the concern that moved him one rainy New Year's Eve to fly off on a mission to help others, and to perish in the effort. In her book Nobody Ever Died of Old Age, Sharon R. Curtin tells of an elderly woman who "was near the end of her life and had never experienced magic, never challenged the smell of brimstone, never clawed at the limit of human capability." In his all-too-brief life--in those rich, eventful thirty-eight years--Roberto Clemente experienced magic often, and others felt his magic. He knew many people, some for only a brief time, whom he touched very deeply. Through them, he touched me, too.