After my mom’s death last year, my brothers and I came across boxes of our old stuff in her basement. With an amused curiosity we sifted through the mementos and trinkets of our youth: the souvenir Liberty Bell from our Greyhound trip to Philly and Gettysburg, assorted yo-yos, sea shells, stickers, Mad magazines, the well worn vinyl albums of Zepplin, Skynard, the Stones and a host of bands too unfortunate to mention here. In this archeological excavation we came upon a vein of baseball cards. Sorting through these lithographed portraits was like opening a time capsule of outlandish 1970s style and grooming habits: the gigantic afros, mutten chop sideburns, an array of interesting mustaches and eye wear, all manner of headbands, wristbands and those multi-colored stretch polyester uniforms that had replaced the traditional button up flannels. And there, amid this rich scattering of cards I came upon one that stopped me cold, a treasured object from my childhood—the 1972 Roberto Clemente Topps card. The cardboard was creased in places and the corners were bent. But there he was in that odd pose where he is intently looking down at a ball he is tossing upward from his open hand. This was the card that all us kids on the block hoped for as we ripped open packs of cards, our banana seat bikes strewn on the sidewalk outside the Bryant Street corner store in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood.
Clemente’s story arc, with obscure, impoverished origin and martyr’s death, has the clichéd quality of cinematic drama. It’s the story of a boy who grew up in the sugarcane fields and dirt farms of Puerto Rico, a skinny kid who becomes obsessed with the imported game of baseball and spends endless hours playing with a stick and wad of leaves for bat and ball. This improbable figure will go on to be revered like few who have played the game, possessed of a haunted elegance and a quiet intensity. Teammates and opponents alike sensed they were in the presence of greatness. Others misread the distant persona as arrogance. In the decades since his death, many pro players, especially laintos, have worn number 21 in his honor. In Pittsburgh, a whole generation fell under the spell of Clemente. Guys like me continue to chase the myth and memory of him through the decades.
His legend is not a function of numbers or titles, the more common measures of the game. Others of his era were stronger, faster, better. His whole career he played in the considerable shadows of Mays and Aaron. But his spirit transcended sport. His approach and relation to the game was somehow different. He was a five-tool player who played with a reckless abandon. His thin, compact body had a certain indescribable quality to it, a self contained sort of grace and nobility. The elaborate ritual of Clemente taking the batters box was mimicked in sandlots all over town: the handfull of dirt, the neck and back gyrations, the deliberate sequence of precise adjustments. And then the distinctive off-balance reaching swing. For me, the story that best illustrates the intensity of his play is from game 3 of the 1971 World Series. Clemente, by that time the oldest player on the field, chops a high bouncer in front of the mound. The pitcher, Mike Cuellar, waits for it to come down and then is so taken aback by the sight of Clemente’s mad dash down the line, he rushes the throw and it goes wide. Clemente’s uncommon effort and Cuellar’s own miscalculation flusters him. He ends up giving up what would be the winning runs. Legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver later called that seemingly insignificant play ‘the most memorable play of the series...the key to the series.’
Beyond athletics, Clemente had some kind of majesty that projected from the soul, from the inside. The sense of his humanity and rare spirit showed itself in the way he lived—a poet with a deep sense of gratitude. A whole person given to charities, concerned with racial equality and the fate of his Latino brothers and sisters; it showed in the way he died—in his prime, on an ill-fated attempt to deliver earthquake relief supplies, a desperado run in a hastily rented, junky DC9.
Clemente came up in the early 1950s, just a few years after Robinson had broken the color barrier, a time when Major League ball was still mostly white, and blacks and latinos were not always treated well. Early in his career he had a difficult time in the northern industrial city of Pittsburgh, a place so different from his tropical home. But by the time I saw him in 1972 he had won over the tough blue collar town. His legend was well established. The mill workers and neighborhood paesanos in the first base grandstand that night sat in awe of Clemente. It would be his final season.
And some forty years after buying that baseball card, I continue to seek the mythological Clemente of my childhood. I see him sliding into the corner in right to make an impossible catch. I see the throws that cut down runners who mistakenly challenged his arm. I imagine all the other runners who did not take the extra base—baseball is a game of fear and respect. The term ‘outfield assist’ doesn't do justice to the rifle arm, considered by many to be unequalled in the annals of the game.
But always a part of the ghost I chase remains elusive, unreachable. Maybe it’s the remote quality of memory itself. The black and white reels of footage loop in the mind. He is forever rounding second base with fiercely churning arms and legs, finishing with a graceful hook slide into third. Actual footage is scarce compared with today’s ever recorded ESPN moments. So we chase the ghost of Clemente, and we wait through generations of muscular, swaggering mega-athletes for the second coming of this most rare player and human being.