March 22, 2012


Roberto Clemente: The King of BĂ©isbol: Fifty years ago, the sports superstar and humanitarian transcended baseball's borders (David Maraniss, April 2012, Smithsonian)

What a surprisingly light object this helmet is! The sensation is of holding balsa wood, so insubstantial it seems almost ready to float away. Six and a half ounces, fiberglass and polyester resin, made from the formula used in bulletproofing materials for the armed forces. Coated in black, with a yellow P embossed on the front--the colors of the Pirates. Eight air holes on top, no ear flaps (they would not be mandatory in the Majors until 1974), scuff marks here and there, many of them with flecks of green. How could this object protect a head from the impact of baseballs thrown at velocities of 90 to 100 miles an hour from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches by the likes of Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal? The question raises many thoughts, but first consider the remarkable head inside that helmet.

Clemente represents more than baseball. That explains why his helmet is at the museum, where it will appear among more than 100 objects--along with the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the original Kermit the Frog and a 150-pound piece of Plymouth Rock--in the exhibition "American Stories," which opens April 5. Clemente became a patron saint in the Spanish-speaking baseball-playing world, as well as in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, a black Latino embraced by the nation's quintessential white working-class town. His devoted following extends around the world; 40 schools and more than 200 parks are named in his honor, from Puerto Rico to Africa to Germany. The way he died is part of it. The plane that carried him to his death at age 38 was bound for Managua, Nicaragua, from San Juan, carrying humanitarian aid to a nation that had been devastated by an earthquake. That trip was in keeping with the way Clemente lived. He was that rare athlete who was growing as a human being as he aged; so many diminish as their talents diminish. In the final years of his life, his mantra was: If you have a chance to make life better for others and fail to do so, you are wasting your time on this earth. Clemente was aboard the plane because earlier aid sent to Nicaragua had been diverted by military thugs working for the nation's strongman ruler, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. If I go, it will reach the people, he said.

Months after he died, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Latino so honored, and joined Lou Gehrig, who also died young, as the only members not required to wait five years after their playing days were done. Clemente was not the best ever, but there was no one like him on the field or off. Here is No. 21 in full--the soulful way he looked in his cutoff Pirates uniform with the black long-sleeved undershirt; the way he moved slowly to the plate, as though about to face an executioner, rolling out the persistent kinks in his neck all the way from the on-deck circle; the trademark clothesline throw from the deepest corner of right field to third base; the incessant physical complaints of a perfectionist and hypochondriac; the busting pride for his homeland and the determination with which he confronted American sportswriters who ridiculed his accent (none of them spoke Spanish) and described him in the racial stereotypes of that era; the beautiful fury with which he swung his big-barreled bat at any pitch within reach and ran the bases as if fleeing a horror, his helmet often flying off as he rounded first after another of his precisely 3,000 hits.

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Posted by at March 22, 2012 6:43 AM

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