West Virginia Book Festival

For baseball season, a little “Clemente”

Ten years ago, members of the Charleston Alley Cats Class A minor league team got their initial look at Watt Powell Park. The Alley Cats have since become the West Virginia Power, and Watt Powell Park was torn down in 2005. Photo by Lawrence Pierce

The major league baseball season opens Thursday; high school and college baseball have been going on for a while now, and the minor leagues (including your West Virginia Power) start soon.

I used to read a lot more baseball books than I do now.  I read all of those kid biographies in my grade school library: Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams. I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so the one about Stargell was my favorite. But then I came across the Roberto Clemente biography, and I was captivated.

Plucked from obscurity by the Pirates in the minor league draft. Led the team to two World Series titles, 11 years apart. Got his 3,000th hit on the last day of the 1972 season — and a few months later, he was dead, killed in a plane crash while trying to help victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. That story has everything.

So I was both excited and wary a few years ago when David Maraniss, who wrote lauded biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, came out with an adult biography of Clemente. Part of me was put off by the book’s grandiose subtitle, “The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” I would have loved that kind of thing when I was 10; as an adult, I’d like a little more even-handedness and a little less hero worship. Mostly, though, I think I was worried that the book wouldn’t do justice to the story I loved so much.

But “Clemente” was one of the better biographies I’ve read in recent years, never mind sports biographies. Clemente was a complex guy; as Maraniss writes, “The truth was he had a temper and occasionally did stupid things.” He faced racism and ignorance as the first Puerto Rican baseball star (Maraniss notes that on the 1960 World Series-winning team, the “ethnic” star was Bill Mazeroski — whose father was a coal miner from Wheeling). Clemente’s relationship with the city of Pittsburgh, its fans and its press, though largely positive, had some pretty rough spots. Maraniss doesn’t gloss over them. But Clemente truly was one of those athletes who became a symbol for a people and a nation, and his impact continues. Current Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata has a tattoo of Clemente on his chest.

And now, the story lives on for a new generation, in a new medium:

The graphic novel “21: The Story of Roberto Clemente,” by Wilfred Santiago, will be published on April 12. Early reviews are promising, including one from Alex Belth, who wrote in Sports Illustrated:

The wonder of this book is that is will appeal to kids and adults alike. Even non-baseball fans will fall under its spell. The national pastime has been virtually untouched by the graphic novel genre but if Santiago’s effort is any indication, the marriage of subject and form is nothing short of a grand slam. Santiago has set the bar high, though, and we’ll be all the richer if anyone can approach the artistry and emotional resonance of this memorable book.