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Uncovering Clemente, Baseball’s Last Hero

Opening Billboard: Funding for this program is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Wattenberg: Hello I’m Ben Wattenberg…
While responding to a catastrophic earthquake in Nicaragua, Puerto-Rican born baseball great, Roberto Clemente, died in a tragic plane crash. The twelve-time All-Star of the Pittsburgh Pirates with exactly three-thousand hits to his name is accredited with a remarkable throwing arm and a heart for philanthropy. But what makes him a hero? Why do many believe that Clemente was overlooked and underappreciated?
To find out, think Tank is joined by…
David Maraniss, associate editor of the Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize –winning author of several biographies including Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.
The Topic Before the House: Uncovering Clemente, “Baseball’s Last hero,” this week on Think Tank.

Wattenberg: David Marinas, welcome to Think Thank.
Marinas: Thanks, Ben.
Wattenberg: I am a long-time admirer of yours and delighted to have you on the program.
Marinas: Great to be with you.
Wattenberg: Now, you have written this remarkable book called Clemente, about Pittsburgh Pirate all-star right fielder Roberto Clemente. Its subtitle is...
Marinas: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.
Wattenberg: It is a wonderful book.
Marinas: Thanks.
Wattenberg: David, as we normally do on this program, could you give us a little bit of your personal bio.
Marinas: Sure.
Marinas: So -- and I also loved sports. I grew up playing baseball. My dad was from Brooklyn and a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they moved.
Wattenberg: Like me. Boys of Summer.
Marinas: And so he taught me a lot about, you know, what teams to root for and why (laugh), and that stayed with me my whole life.
Wattenberg: Who is your current passion?
Marinas: well, I don’t have a current passion. I was a Braves fan as a kid, but they moved away, too, from Milwaukee. Baseball teams break your heart.
Wattenberg: There was a documentary on Hank Greenberg...
Marinas: Yeah, I remember that.
Wattenberg: ...which was a great movie...
Marinas: Yeah, I saw that.
Wattenberg: ...and again, this whole sports in society thing that I am fascinated with. I guess he approaches Babe Ruth’s record and he’s had 58 homeruns and he sits out for Yom Kippur.
Marinas: Even though he wasn’t religious (laugh).
Wattenberg: Even though he wasn’t religious. And people were booing him and sending him hate mail. It’s a very –- you know, we’ve had soccer wars, we’ve had ping pong diplomacy; people don’t realize how closely related sports and society are.
Marinas: I agree with you completely, Ben and that’s why I wrote this book. I mean, I wrote an earlier book on Vince Lombardi for the same reason, because he intersected with culture and society in so many (unintelligible).
Wattenberg: Called A Will to Win or something like that.
Marinas: It was called When Pride Still Mattered. When Pride Still Mattered. And Clemente in a different way. You know, I wasn’t just writing about my favorite baseball player, although I loved Clemente, but I wouldn’t have written about anyone else. It was Clemente’s story because he was the greatest of the first Latino players. His personal life story has a great and tragic arc to it and he was that rare athlete who represented more than sports. And so that’s why I wanted to write a book about him and so I agree completely with your notion about the intersection of sports in society is what fascinates me.
Wattenberg: Let’s get one thing off the table right away, and I’m going to ask you to –- ‘cause I’m chicken -- to say what Roberto Clemente said of himself, the appellation that he used. He called himself a...
Marinas: Well, at one point he called himself a “double nigger”, a word that he hated, but he said it reflected the way he felt as a black Puerto Rican in the United States. And Clemente was a very...
Wattenberg: That’s stuff tough.
Marinas: ...he was a very outspoken guy in an era when not that many athletes were.
Wattenberg: And Pittsburgh I guess, while not unusual for a northern city, was not exactly race-neutral.
Marinas: No, it was the quintessential blue collar, white ethnic steel town.
Wattenberg: Absolutely.
Marinas: It did have a...
Wattenberg: And they came to love him. I mean, you know...
Marinas: Yeah. He spent his whole career there. Eighteen seasons. In retrospect, everybody in Pittsburgh always loved Clemente. It’s like when I did the Lombardi book, if everybody who told me they were at the Ice Bowl in ’67 really was there it would have been about two million people, you know, but –- ‘cause every -– it’s one of those things people want to identify with.
Marinas: Everybody in Pittsburgh now loves Clemente. That wasn’t always true, but he did have an extraordinary story in Pittsburgh in terms of winning over this blue collar steel town to a Puerto Rican and he became...
Wattenberg: To a black Puerto Rican.
Marinas: Black Puerto Rican, and he became a real icon there and it says a lot about him that that happened, and about the fans of Pittsburgh.
Wattenberg: I mean, I had –- and I had followed baseball on and off quite intensely and then sort of dropped it when they stole my teams, but I had no idea that he was right up there with Ty Cobb and Roger Hornsby and Chris Spieker as one of the 3,000 hit all-time...
Marinas: He was the eleventh player in history to get 3,000 hits, and he got exactly 3,000 hits. He could have gone out on in his career, but he died that winter which is the end of my story. I won’t get to it yet, but he was the greatest hitter of the 1960s. Not in terms of power, but in terms of overall hitting.
Wattenberg: And apparently his throwing arm from right field was...
Marinas: His throwing arm is what I use to describe Clemente’s beauty because -– here’s my theory about baseball. Baseball is of all the sports the one that could be most easily judged by numbers. You know, people love to sort of reduce it to statistics...
Marinas: And, you know, I love the numbers of baseball, too but I -– but my theory of life is life is not numbers; life is sensations and you remember things because they’re a sensation and it stays with you. And Clemente’s throwing arm was something that if you ever saw you would never forget. You can see how many homeruns over your career and, you know, watching, and you forget them. But if you saw Clemente go deep into the corner of right field, you know, on TV or in person at any of the stadiums in the National League and whirl around and pick up the ball and throw a perfect bullet strike to third base or home plate without a bounce, you never forget it. I can’t tell you, Ben how many hundreds of people have come up to me and told me their story of seeing Clemente do that.
Wattenberg: He was born where and how?
Marinas: He was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico in August of 1934. Carolina is about 20 miles from San Juan, the capitol of Puerto Rico. Today it’s just an extension of the megalopolis, but then it was a rural area. His dad was a foreman in the sugar cane [breaks?]. His mother had many jobs. She was a –- including a butcher, and you know, when you study athletes you often find that it was the mother’s athletic skills that really make the great athletes, and Clemente’s mother could haul 80-pound slabs of beef around on her shoulder. He said that he got his great right arm from her. When she was 80 years old she could still throw a strike from a Major League mound and he -– he had a –- several stepbrothers and brothers. It was a fairly large family. Not much money but not the most impoverished during the Depression. Born around the same time you were, you know, so you know that era pretty well.
Wattenberg: I’m a Depression baby, born in 1933.
Marinas: And loved baseball from the earliest age. I went back to Carolina and found people who knew him from the barrio of [San Antone?] and they said whenever they saw Roberto he was throwing something.
Wattenberg: So he was a poor kid?
Marinas: He was a poor kid. Yep. And he...
Wattenberg: And the Latinos, where the blacks once before them, Jackie Robinson and all that, which has been well chronicled, they’re almost taking over -– I mean, there -– I bet there are more Latino players than black players or than white players in the Major Leagues.
Marinas: Oh, well, it’s not even close in terms of African Americans versus Latinos. It’s been like this: Latinos, you know, when Clemente came up there might be one on a team; now it’s over 25% of Major League baseball.
Wattenberg: I mean, you had Orlando [Cabrera?]. There were a few others, but...
Marinas: Yeah, but it wasn’t –- well [Cabrera?] is actually from Puerto Rico and played with Clemente.
Wattenberg: And you know this, I mean, you get all the...
Marinas: But blacks have declined down to 8%. Latinos are now up to -– they’ll be 30% in a year or two and so its been a remarkable transformation. But Clemente wasn’t the first Latino, but he was in the first wave and he was the greatest of those players, and because of the way he played his best and because of the way he just carried himself, he became very, very important to all of the other Latino players and in a way that I don’t know of any white player quite comparable. If you talked to Alphonso Soriano or any of the Latinos on the Nats or any other of the Major League teams today, they know the story of Roberto Clemente. A lot of athletes don’t know the history of their own sport.
Wattenberg: I mean, the sports in society thing today, Jews are not known to be athletes or...but there were in the early days, Sid Luckman was a great quarterback. There were boxers -– Benny Leonard...
Marinas: Basketball players.
Wattenberg: Basketball players. Nat Hallman, (unintelligible) City College team. It’s a way of...
Marinas: Oh, absolutely.
Wattenberg: Bootstrapping.
Marinas: It’s opportunity and necessity that makes athletes.
Wattenberg: And they’re willing to do very dangerous things.
Marinas: That’s right. Throughout -– you study that of every [immigrant?] group coming up, you know, they found an athletic outlet and for -- for a lot of the Caribbean, because it’s so –- it’s warm weather, baseball is the thing.
Wattenberg: Now, before Clemente graduated from high school, he agreed to sign on to the Brooklyn Dodgers...
Marinas: (Laughing)
Wattenberg: ...the Brooklyn Dodgers farm team for one third of the amount that the Milwaukee Braves offered him. Now, why did he make that decision?
Marinas: Because of the umbilical cord connection between Puerto Rico and New York City. He wanted to play in New York. The Dodgers were part of it, too. He knew the history of the Dodgers and their progressive, you know, Jackie Robinson, the first black playing for the Dodgers, and by the time Clemente signed there were five or six black players on the Dodgers. So he knew about that. And he had relatives and friends in New York, so it was very important to him that he get an opportunity to play in New York. That’s why he signed there. And he had every expectation to do that. But in that era, athletes, baseball players had really no control over their careers and so the Dodgers, for a variety of reasons, did not keep him on their forty-man roster, even though they signed him as a bonus baby.
He was sent up to Montreal, played for the Royals. They didn’t play him much up there. They were sort of trying to hide him but they couldn’t hide him from the Pirates, who were the worst team in baseball whose president then was Branch Rickey, the same Branch Rickey who brought Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers.
Wattenberg: Why were the Pirates hiding him?
Marinas: the Dodgers were hiding him...
Wattenberg: I mean the Dodgers.
Marinas: ...because they thought –- because they knew that if he wasn’t on the Major League roster some team could draft him after one year in what’s called the Five A Supplemental Draft. It’s kind of complicated, but essentially if you don’t keep...
Wattenberg: It’s like the U.S. Government.
Marinas: Right. You could be stolen after a year. So they thought, well, if nobody sees him play they might not take him.
Wattenberg: It’s like a claiming race in a horse race.
Marinas: Right. But the Pirates had some great scouts and they knew all about Clemente and they made him the first pick in the supplemental draft.
Wattenberg: Well, Branch Rickey was a fascinating character.
Marinas: Oh, he sure was.
Wattenberg: And again, no matter how you slice it and dice it, he played a pivotal role in changing race relations in America...
Marinas: Sure (unintelligible)...
Wattenberg: ...having the guts to hire Jackie Robinson.
Marinas: Oh, yeah.
Wattenberg: He was another strange piece of work. A wonderful guy. I mean, he ended up endorsing Nixon in 1960.
Marinas: Jackie Robinson, Chock Full O’Nuts. Right (laugh).
Wattenberg: That’s right.
Marinas: Oh, I know, and Branch Rickey, who you know, affected American 20th century history, not just baseball, with what he did. He was a very complicated guy as well and he -– as I write in the book, I mean, he’s the one who first scouted Clemente and he -- he would have a male secretary at his side wherever he went and he would dictate his whole life, you know, whatever he saw. And he would –- so he’d go to a baseball game and dictate his scouting analysis of every player in brutally frank terms, often. And I found all of those records at the Library of Congress. It was really fun to read through his scouting analysis of every player.
Wattenberg: When I was a kid, one of my very favorite books that I used to read again and again was a book called The Gas House Gang about the old St. Louis Cardinals. And they went into some of the scouting reports and they had a great left fielder who later played for the Dodgers, I think. Joe Medwick. And the scouting report said “hits bad pitches”, and people said, “Oh, well that’s terrible. He’s...” It didn’t say “he misses”. He hits them.
Marinas: That’s where Clemente had the same (unintelligible). Clemente was like Medwick. He would swing at anything and he said, “It’s not a bad pitch if I hit it.” He said, “I can hit anything.”
Wattenberg: That’s right.
Marinas: matter of fact, over the years there were a lot of debates about how you pitch Clemente. Earl Weaver, when he faced the Pirates in 1971, I interviewed Earl and he said, you know, my scouts came back after a few weeks scouting the Pirates and they said throw it low and away or, you know, or inside, brush him back and it didn’t matter what we did; we ended up just throwing right down the middle ‘cause he’d hit it no matter what.
Marinas: I mean, he -– think about 1960 and ’61. 1960 Roberto Clemente plays right field for the Pirates, phenomenal team that won the National League pennant against all odds and then went on and beat the big, bad Yankees in seven games. Had a phenomenal World Series. Clemente got a hit in all seven games, went home to Puerto Rico, his homeland. Was carried off the airplane as the hero of the island and regaled all winter as the Prince of the Island.
1961 Clemente comes back to Fort Myers, Florida. Where the Pirates trained for spring training. The city of Fort Myers holds a banquet honoring the world champion Pirates in their spring training (unintelligible) at a restaurant where Clemente can’t even walk in the front door. The only blacks allowed in are the –- are the servers.
The team holds their annual spring golf outing at the country club. Clemente can’t play because it’s at a white’s only country club. That spring of ’61 was an early turning point in baseball that helped the larger Civil Rights Movement. It was going on all over the south where these black players, or Latino and black -– you know, Clemente had been in the Marine Corps, he’d served the Untied States in the Marine Corps, a lot of the other black players had been in the service and they just were starting to speak out. Bill White for the Cardinals was doing it; Billie Bruton (ph.) for the Braves, they were -– they had some very strong supporters in the press, including one of the great forgotten black...
Wattenberg: And when you had blacks dating or marrying white women, it drove people crazy.
Marinas: Oh, well...
Wattenberg: (Unintelligible), I mean, Maury Wills used to go out with Doris Day...
Marinas: Before Maury Wills, since you’re probably a Yankee-hater if you love the Dodgers, the first great black in the Yankee system was another black Puerto Rican, Vic Power.
Wattenberg: I thought Elston Howard was the first one.
Marinas: Power was before Elston Howard; he just didn’t get to the majors because he dated white women and the Yankees didn’t like it. They didn’t like the fact that he loved jazz and would drive around in a Cadillac and didn’t care who he associated with.
Wattenberg: And today, Tiger Woods, who doesn’t call himself black. He calls himself an Amer-Asian because he’s, American-Thai, American-Indian and all. Has this stunningly beautiful Swedish-Scandinavian wife...
Marinas: And nobody blinks. Well, that’s great, I mean, that’s improvement in society.
Marinas: I mean that was Clemente dealing with race in the United States, which he didn’t really have to deal with in the same way in Puerto Rico. I mean, every society has its own, you know, shades of dealing with race, but in Puerto Rico there’s no overt segregation so he grew up without that. He had to deal with it in the United States.
Then the reason I used that term “double” in the beginning of this interview –- or he did -– was because he also faced being really the first Latino public figure in Pittsburgh, a city that didn’t have a Latino population at all. The sportswriters there, for about the first ten years of his career, would consistently quote him in phonetic English, you know, broken English, phonetic spellings. If Clemente said, you know, “hit”, it would be spelled “h-e-e-t” -- “I get heet” -– in the paper, you know, in the headline. Or “if” was “e-e-f”.
Now, none of the sportswriters knew Spanish. Clemente was learning English, speaking it, you know, not badly. I’ve listened to a lot of the tapes and he was a very proud, intelligent man who he saw through that. I mean, they were having fun at his expense basically. He really didn’t like that and spoke out against it, so that’s the other think he had to break through to get the recognition he thought he deserved.
Wattenberg: Your former [Post?] colleague, John Feinstein writes wonderful sports books. I asked him once -– we were talking about the black players... these guys who have become multimillionaires, I mean, Michael Jordan and those guys –- whether they vote their race or their money.
Marinas: And he said money.
Wattenberg: I mean, these guys are multimillionaires. I mean, you take a guy like Michael Jordan. The anomaly in the Medicare taxes, you pay 1% but there’s no cap on it. Well, if you’re making 100 million dollars a year, that’s a million dollars a year. And very few of them will say. I guess this center, a six-foot-five guy from...
Marinas: Charles Barkley.
Wattenberg: Charles Barkley is sort of a...
Marinas: He’s coming back to the democrats.
Wattenberg: Oh, is he really?
Marinas: Yes. He was going to run for governor as republican and he said the republicans have gone too far for him so he’s going back to the democrats (laughing).
Wattenberg: Well, it’s, now...
Marinas: And Clemente was a democrat.
Wattenberg: Yeah. And there is something I know ‘cause they’ve nominated Soriano for it that is now called the Clemente Award. What is that, related to philanthropy or something?
Marinas: It’s related to humanitarian work outside of the baseball diamond. Roberto Clemente -– I should start by saying, you know, he wasn’t a saint. No human being is, right? I mean, he had a temper, he had a lot of other things going.
Marinas: But Clemente was, in my opinion, the rare athlete who was growing as a human being as he got older. Most athletes, when their talents diminish, they sort of shrink. Clemente was going the other way. He was really expanding beyond baseball. In his last three years of his life, he’d give a speech in which he said, “If you have a chance to help others and fail to do so, you’re wasting your time on this earth.” He didn’t have a speechwriter tell him to do that. He didn’t have an agent. He believed it.
Wattenberg: And he flew into what country? Nicaragua?
Marinas: Well, he -– this is what happened. After the 1972 season, the last –- his last day at bat he got his 3000th hit, came back to Puerto Rico and was the manager of an amateur baseball team representing Puerto Rico in a World Baseball World Series -- Amateur Baseball World Series, and that was held in Nicaragua. So he was down there for several weeks managing this team in November and early December of 1972. Then he came back to San Juan and two weeks later the earthquake leveled Managua. You know, 5,000 killed, hundreds of thousands homeless. Clemente immediately started raising funds for Nicaragua because he’d been there and he was the, you know, the big figure in Puerto Rico and they raised a lot. They got a lot of medical aid, food supplies and sent -– leased a plane, they sent it down to Nicaragua twice and the Puerto Rican that was in charge, that went on the flight -– a major in the Puerto Rican National Guard -– called Clemente and said, “Look, something funny’s happened at the airport. [We’re getting it there...?]” And then Somoza -- Anastasio Somoza was the strongman of Nicaragua –- his military was taking the aid and putting it behind a fence. It was getting diverted; it wasn’t...
Wattenberg: And it was a rickety plane and he...
Marinas: No, no. This is (unintelligible).
Wattenberg: Oh, okay. I’m sorry.
Marinas: So then Clemente said, “If I go, it’ll get to the people” and he -– that’s when he got on the wrong plane. Everything thing that could possibly be wrong with the plane that Clemente was wrong, and he didn’t know it. It was a rickety old DC-7 that had been bought at a part of Miami Airport that they called Cockroach Corner, or Corrosion Corner. There was all these, you know, tramp airlines down there. The owner who bought it and ran it didn’t know how to fly it. He’d taxi –- he’d taken it out once and taxied it into a ditch. He got a pilot at the last minute for Clemente. The pilot was about to have his license revoked. He was another tramp pilot. The plane itself had not been fixed since it was put into the ditch. It was overloaded by 5,000 pounds and the Federal Aviation Administration Flight Safety Office was under orders during that specific period to conduct surveillance on all those tramp airlines whenever they took off and landed.
But it was New Year’s Eve, nobody was watching. Clemente was just determined to get to Nicaragua, boarded this flight without knowing any of that and it didn’t have a chance.
Wattenberg: Give us a few one-liners. Put it all in perspective.
Marinas: Well, Clemente is not just a baseball player. He was an incredible human being who sort of transcended sports and has now become part of the mythology of more than baseball. Every Latino in the Spanish-speaking baseball-playing world knows the story of Roberto Clemente because of the way he lived and the way he died. He died nobly and he lived with a very strong sense of self-identity which really lifted him above all the other ballplayers. He was proud of who he was, where he was from and what he represented.
Wattenberg: Okay. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a narrative. It’s a swift read. Its got social significance as well as athletic significance. Thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank, I think for your first time. Please remember if you can to send us email comments. Please remember if you can to send us your email comments. We think it makes our program better, and now we’ll put up on the screen –- I’ve started blogging and I find it a wonderful forum. We welcome your participation in either independent posts or responses. So for Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
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