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"At Clemente's sweetest moment of glory, in the dugout after his Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1971 World Series, he brought pride to all of Latin America by choosing to speak in Spanish to honor his parents back home."
The event to which David Maraniss refers in that passage at the end of his recent biography was only one of many memorable events characterizing the exceptional career of Roberto Clemente. The most unforgettable, of course, was Clemente's decision to fly to Nicaragua himself with the relief supplies he had collected for earthquake victims there, in order to insure that the supplies would reach the people who needed them, rather than be stolen by soldiers and sold on the black market. He died when the overloaded and rickety plane crashed shortly after taking off from Puerto Rico.
The danger in a book about a man who has been celebrated the way Roberto Clemente has been is that the flesh-and-blood reality of the subject will be obscured by the myths that have grown up around him. David Maraniss presents the myth, certainly, but readers are also given a man whose pride could be prickly. Nobody could have born the pressure and expectations that became Clemente's lot without sometimes lashing out. Maraniss even includes a couple of stories in which Clemente comes across as boorish and violent.
Roberto Clemente was, of course, an exceptionally accomplished ballplayer, but he's one of the few hall-of-famers for whom that characterization seems seriously limiting. The range of his passions was extraordinary. He cared deeply about the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged people of Latin America, and he was proud to be a Puerto Rican. He was famous for helping people, whether by massaging their backs, providing them with food, or inspiring them with his energy and his pride. In Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, Roberto Clemente gets the biography he earned.
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