On Roberto Clemente

On Roberto Clemente

I was blown away by the intensity and grace with which Roberto Clemente played the game.


When I was growing up, my biggest sports hero was Roberto Clemente, the right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was very young (6 years old in 1956, when he was in his second year of major-league baseball), and though I later learned lots of other things to admire him for, I was mostly just blown away by the intensity and grace with which he played the game. Every play, every inning. Three seconds of seeing him move at long distance on a tiny black-and-white TV set, and you could tell who it was. He would work his neck and shoulders constantly in the on-deck circle, then step haughtily into the batter’s box, slash at a “bad” pitch, hit a screaming line drive, then run the bases like a madman. Or make a basket catch in right field and throw a rope to the plate to beat the runner tagging up and trying to score. Though I grew up with a pretty mixed ethnic bag of people, we didn’t have any Puerto Ricans living near us at the time, so I didn’t really have even a media-based idea of who they were until West Side Story came out in ‘61. I thought he was just a black guy with an Italian last name (and that Chuck Berry was a white dude who was into cars). Sports and music are often where people of different races and ethnicities first get to mix in America, and a sports hero is more often someone you want to “be like” than somebody who is anything “like you.”

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