“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game. It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good… and it could be again.”
Well. As George Will, a serious authority on baseball and occasional commentator on politics might say. This claim to the exceptional character of the game, made in the movie Field of Dreams, sums up the romantic image of the National Pastime. One might point to other things of permanence in America—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution come to mind. But perhaps this is quibbling. We are after all in the midst of the glorious American Fall Classic—what we unapologetically call the World Series. The Detroit Tigers of Cobb, Greenberg and Kaline; and the St. Louis Cardinals of Deane, Musial, and Gibson.
Baseball, to be sure, has its critics who make fun of the pretensions and over-blown poetry. Football has long surpassed baseball in popularity. Basketball players are far more marketable. Soccer, the world’s sport, is surely the wave of the future in the age of globalization. And yet baseball, more than any other sport, seems to reflect the excellence, character, and sense of justice of America—or the lack thereof. Field of Dreams (based on a novel by W. P. Kinsella) is in part the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest hitters of the early game, who was banned from organized baseball along with seven of his teammates for being part of a conspiracy of gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series. “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” one young boy famously pleaded to his fallen hero. Some to this day insist that Joe was innocent. But for revisionists—see another book and movie, Eight Men Out—the real villains of the Black Sox scandal were the greedy, tyrannical team owners and the unrestrained capitalist system that left the workers no choice between a marginal existence and crime. Today baseball faces scandals of a different sort. Millionaire athletes are hauled before Congress and grand juries accused of using illegal performance enhancing substances. “Say it ain’t so, Mark (or Barry or Sammy or Rafael)!” On a more common level, fans debate furiously the behavior of a pitcher allegedly using pine tar in violation of the rules—and the obligation, if any, of the opposing manager to make a stink about it.
The greatest morality play for baseball and American society remains Jackie Robinson and the breaking of the color barrier in 1947, foreshadowing the civil rights revolution. (President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces in 1948.) Baseball and America were undeniably better for the participation of such men of talent and athletic character as Robinson, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron. Fans of all colors were cheated by not being able to see the greats of the Negro Leagues—Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, John Henry Lloyd—play in sanctioned competition against Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Walter Johnson (to say nothing of the denial of the rights and opportunities for the black players). In terms of hitting prodigious home runs, Ruth may have been the white Josh Gibson, rather than the other way around. Many serious baseball men of all colors believed that Oscar Charleston, a center fielder with speed and power, was the best player in any league, any time.
It is therefore somewhat startling to realize that the 2005 National League champions, the Houston Astros, played in the World Series without a single African-American player on the team. American blacks now amount to about nine percent of major league rosters, down from 27 percent in 1985. Has racial prejudice again reared its ugly head? One cannot rule out that possibility completely, at least at the margins. But the more obvious causes are related to the changing culture of the black community, such as the attraction of athletes to other sports. Major league baseball, prompted by several prominent retired black players, such as Joe Morgan, has recently built facilities and initiated instructional programs in the inner city to try to revive interest in the game among African-American youth.
The casual fan may have missed this change because there is no shortage of men of color playing America’s pastime. Today’s new stars, however, often speak Spanish—or Japanese or Chinese or Korean. Roughly 25 percent of Major League players, and nearly 45 percent of minor leaguers, are foreign born. These legal aliens and, in many cases, current or future U.S. citizens provided a needed infusion of talent as the number of major league teams expanded and the participation of American blacks declined. Baseball was typically slow to recognize the possibilities of importing foreign talent. A few forward-looking franchises, like the Dodgers, reaped the early advantages of scouting and developing “Latin” or “Latino” ballplayers, in part by hiring managers and coaches who spoke Spanish. The Dodgers, in their Los Angeles incorporation, also reaped the financial benefits by marketing the team aggressively to the Hispanic populations in southern California and northern Mexico, playing off the success of pitcher Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980s. The Dodgers signed the first significant Japanese player, pitcher Hideo Nomo. Other franchises, for lack of money or perspective, lagged behind and suffered competitively, just as the Boston Red Sox suffered for years from their indifference, real and perceived, to African American talent.
By all public appearances at least, teams and their fans have now overwhelmingly embraced the new colors of the game. The public face of baseball is today the smile of David Ortiz, Big Papi, the Red Sox’s celebrated clutch hitter from the Dominican Republic. These men are celebrated back home for their accomplishments in the States. Ozzie Guillen, the outspoken manager of the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox and a former All-Star shortstop, was feted after the World Series in his homeland of Venezuela, not exactly a hotbed of pro-American sentiment. (Guillen, incidentally, became an American citizen about the same time.) The accomplishments in America of former Japanese major league stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have validated that country’s often insecure sense of athletic excellence.
The Latinization of the game is the major subtext of the David Maraniss’s biography, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Roberto Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico, played eighteen years in right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1955-1972). He won four batting titles, a Most Valuable Player Award, and twelve Gold Gloves, awarded each year to the best defensive player at his position in each league. His last hit was number 3000, a milestone reached by only 26 players in major league history.
Despite this impressive resume, Clemente is often overlooked in the standard rankings of the greatest players. Critics then and now point to his relatively low home run total (240) and on-base and slugging percentages (.356 and .479), and his relatively high number of outfield errors. Clemente’s reputation was also damaged by his often-stormy relations with the press. He came across to many sports journalists, and thus to their readers, as sullen and moody, a malingerer, prone to egotistical rants and long silences—a Spanish-speaking Barry Bonds, if you will. His play was characterized as that of a Latin American showboat, flash over substance, a “Puerto Rican hot dog.”
Maraniss seeks to correct the record, especially for those too young to remember Clemente as a player. “There was something about Clemente,” Maraniss writes, “that surpassed statistics, then and always.” Maraniss’ prime exhibit of Clemente’s professional excellence was the 1971 World Series, won in seven games by the underdog Pirates over defending champion Baltimore. Clemente received the MVP award for batting .414, his memorable clutch hitting, furious base-running and spectacular defensive play. Off the field, Clemente admittedly was a complicated man: “he was no saint, and certainly not docile. He was agitated, beautiful, sentimental, unsettled, sweet, serious, selfless, haunted, sensitive, contradictory, and intensely proud of everything about his native land, including himself.” Although Maraniss acknowledges Clemente’s rough edges, he focuses on Clemente’s many large and small kindnesses to strangers and the disadvantaged of all colors. By the force of his personality, generosity and accomplishments, Clemente became the patron saint of Spanish-speaking players in the Major Leagues.
Clemente’s finest hour came on New Years Eve 1972-73, just a few weeks after his three thousandth hit, when he was killed in the crash of an airplane delivering humanitarian aid to the victims of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente was never one for feel-good celebrity humanitarian gestures replete with publicity photos and press releases. He had managed a Puerto Rican amateur team in Managua just a few weeks earlier and was simply moved to do something. Clemente was angered by reports that the Somoza family was siphoning off international aid and using the chaos of the earthquake for political advantage. He wanted to use his personal standing to see that the supplies reached the victims. He worked long hours in Puerto Rico to organize the collection of relief supplies. The manner of Clemente’s death secured his place as a Puerto Rican and Latino hero. Major league baseball waived the standard five year waiting period to permit his election into the Hall of Fame in 1973; and it later established the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually “to a player who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”
Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Washington Post and successful popular author, attempts much more here than the standard sports biography. He follows the lead of David Halberstam and Ken Burns, looking to sports to understand certain characteristic American social patterns and pathologies. Where Halberstam and Burns see race as the great dynamic and divisive force in American history, Maraniss is drawn to the cultural fault-line that emerged during the turmoil of the 1960s. He sees, for instance, the victory of Clemente’s underdog Pirates over the mighty New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series as “an act of rebellion at the dawn of the sixties, the establishment losing the first round.”
Maraniss does not offer a simple formula for understanding that rebellion, which seems for him to represent the imperative to “give voice to the voiceless,” to recognize and elevate the dignity of groups ignored or repressed by the dominant culture, to create an inclusive, true community. He is drawn to explore compelling if flawed characters—outsiders—who came to grips with this challenge to the American establishment. In Maraniss’s biography of Bill Clinton, the future President’s difficult childhood set the stage for an ongoing battle to reconcile his genuine idealism with pragmatism and self-indulgence. Football coach Vince Lombardi appears at first glance to be the ultimate establishment figure in sports but, according to Maraniss, Lombardi’s belief that he had been discriminated against because of his Italian heritage helped him appreciate the dignity of other human beings and the need to accommodate change.
Clemente offers another personal path to explore the problems of America culture because he faced the double barrier of race and language. By this telling, Clemente’s natural resentment of his treatment in mainland America was interpreted by (white) journalists as reflecting a hot-blooded “Latin temperament” as well as that of an “uppity” black. Maraniss does not portray the establishment—baseball management, sportswriters and many of Clemente’s white teammates—as overt racists. They were merely insensitive, failing to understand how social conditions explained the apparent standoffishness of men like Clemente. Like African-American players he had been the victim of an informal racial quota within baseball that persisted years after formal integration. He resented deeply his experiences with Jim Crow during spring training in the South. But it was more than that. Clemente was set apart from the American mainstream—including American blacks, a topic that Maraniss does not explore in great depth—by language and culture. His heavy Spanish accent was mocked, wittingly or not, by writers who presented his quotes in condescending phonetics. Clemente felt that he and other Spanish-speaking players were often overlooked for honors in favor of less talented whites who were praised for their pluck and team play.
Yet Maraniss’s Clemente rose above these resentments. He thought of himself both as Puerto Rican and black but he did not want to be categorized or limited by race. In his assertive dignity and instinctive humanitarianism, he offers for Maraniss a glimpse of that ideal tolerant society that gives voice to the voiceless. Although Clemente’s assertiveness was not political, he listed Martin Luther King as one of his heroes even though his own sensibility—his pride, his refusal to beg indulgences from the white man—was closer to Malcolm X.
How did—or does—a proud man of color make this choice between King and Malcolm X? In accounting for Clemente’s enlightened attitude, Maraniss emphasizes his strong attachment to his Puerto Rican heritage. Clemente, for instance, wanted all his children to be born on the island. Maraniss unfortunately does not fully explore the relationship among Clemente’s views, character and upbringing, other than to note that integration was the norm in Puerto Rico. Did Clemente enjoy a sense of community or family or tradition that is somehow missing in the United States proper? Do toleration and inclusiveness require an attachment to something outside America, the sensibility of being an outsider or having dual loyalties? If so, will any culture or attachment do? Did Puerto Rico’s anomalous political position have something to do with it?
Maraniss hints as his own view when he quotes fondly the Puerto Rican poet Enrique Zorrilla:
Foreigners: make space
Because here, the Puerto Rican troubadour
Will sing with noble valor
Land, blood, name and race.
Land, blood, name and race. Not exactly the American creed. Strong and assertive ethnic ties, to be sure, can help integrate foreigners into the regime. But they can also lead to the morass of multiculturalism, the denial of a singular regime.
Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to Clemente himself—a U.S. Marine Corps reservist—in the form of some extemporaneous comments delivered in January 1972 to a banquet of fathers and sons in San Juan.
I see myself sometimes wondering why some people still have to fight for their rights. As you people know, I have been fighting for my rights all my life. I believe every human being is equal. At the same time we have problems because we are a great nation.… I am from Puerto Rico, but I am also an American citizen. We have an opportunity to travel. I just came from South America. I’ve been in Europe… I can tell you one thing, I won’t trade this country for no one country. We, no matter what, we have the best country in the world and you can believe it.”
A parenthetical note. The 2006 All-Star game in Pittsburgh featured a mid-game ceremony honoring Clemente, giving impetus to a proposal to retire his jersey number (21) throughout baseball—an honor hitherto accorded only to Jackie Robinson (42). The Latino baseball community, as a rule, strongly favors the idea. The proposal has received a much less positive reaction from American blacks. Robinson’s family opposes the idea. “Frankly I’m conflicted,” William C. Rhoden, New York Times columnist and a prominent African-American sports columnist, has written. While taking care to praise Clemente, Rhoden proposed instead that his number be flown on a pennant at each major league stadium. Honor his legacy, not his number, to distinguish him from Robinson. “I don’t think Clemente is that high—but he’s close.”
So far, the fences are still only in the outfield.
A version of the essay was published in the Fall 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
Patrick J. Garrity is a Research Associate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.