Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero

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9780743217811: Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of When Pride Still Mattered comes a book destined to become a modern classic--a full-scale biography of great baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, who lived, played, and died with enduring passion and grace. of photos.

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About the Author:

Born in Detroit, David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story; First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton; Rome 1960: The Olympics that Stirred the World; Barack Obama: The Story; Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero; They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967; and When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, which was hailed by Sports Illustrated as “maybe the best sports biography ever published.” He lives in Washington, DC, and Madison, Wisconsin.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Memory and Myth

The familiar sounds of modern baseball, pings of aluminum bats punctuating the steady drone of a crowd, can be heard from the street a half-block away. It is late on a Sunday afternoon in February, overcast and drizzly in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Inside the stadium, there is a game going on, the Escuela de Deportiva against Bayamón. Nothing special, just teenage boys playing ball, the way they do every afternoon, and then the right fielder from Deportiva scoops up a base hit and fires to second, his throw a bullet -- low, hard, right on the bag. Groups of men huddle in the stands, talking, laughing, playing cards, barely paying attention, or so it seems until the throw. It elicits a murmur of recognition, and suddenly they come alive, stirred by communal memory. All fires are one fire, the novelist Julio Cortázar once wrote. And all arms are one arm. The throw from right field reminds them of the original, the unsurpassable arm of the man for whom the stadium is named, Roberto Clemente.

Beyond the stadium, closer to the street, stands a cenotaph thirty feet long and seven and a half feet high. It is the nearest thing to a headstone for Carolina's favorite son. On its three panels the sculptor José Buscaglia has etched the stations of the cross of Roberto Clemente's thirty-eight years on this earth. In the far left panel, Roberto is a babe, held in the arms of his mother in the barrio of San Antón, and his father is seen working in the nearby cane fields. In the far right panel, Clemente passes from greatness into legend; first he is being honored for his three-thousandth hit, then his spirit is received by a figure of death in the Atlantic's watery grave, and finally his widow holds the plaque for his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But the center panel is the most telling. There, between scenes of Clemente batting, running, fielding, throwing, visiting hospitals, and consoling the sick and the poor, he is depicted standing regal and alone, holding a lamb.

Memory and myth are entwined in the Clemente story. He has been dead for more than three decades, yet he remains vivid in the sporting consciousness while other athletes come and go, and this despite the fact that he played his entire career in relative obscurity, away from the mythmakers of New York and Los Angeles. Forty public schools, two hospitals, and more than two hundred parks and ballfields bear his name, from Carolina, Puerto Rico, where he was born, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he played, to far-off Mannheim, Germany. In the world of memorabilia, the demand for anything Clemente is second only to Mickey Mantle, and far greater than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, or any other black or Latin players. Extraordinary as he was, Clemente was not the greatest who ever played the game, yet there was something about him that elevated him into his own realm. Much of it had to do with the way he died. He was young. He went down in a plane crash. His body was lost to the sea, never found. He was on a mission of mercy, leaving his family on New Year's Eve to come to the aid of strangers. In Spanish, Clemente means merciful. Some of it had to do with the way he looked and played on the ball field, No. 21, perfectly cut in his Pirates uniform, a portrait of solemn beauty, with his defiant jaw and soulful eyes. And much of it had to do with the way he lived. In sainthood, his people put a lamb in his arms, but 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. To borrow the words of the Puerto Rican poet Enrique Zorrilla, what burned in the cheeks of Roberto Clemente was "the fire of dignity."

Copyright © 2006 by David Maraniss

6

Alone at the Miracle

The last time the Pirates played in a World Series, in 1927, the opponents were the same New York Yankees. Then the American League champions terrorized opposing pitchers with a lineup of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri, now it was Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Yogi Berra and Moose Skowron. Murderers' Row old and new, one baseball legend long established, another in the making. The formula was identical in either case: audacious power, solid pitching, pinstripes, intimidation, all rendered glorious by the self-centered hyperbole of New York and its sporting press.

Part of the lore of the 1927 Yankees was a boast that the Pirates, after watching the famed sluggers take batting practice before the series opener, felt so overmatched they folded and lost four straight. Harold (Pie) Traynor, Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame third baseman, had bristled at that story for decades, insisting that it was apocryphal. By Traynor's account, the Pirates were in the clubhouse poring over a scouting report when the Yankees took their pregame cuts. Whatever prodigious shots Ruth and Gehrig stroked during batting practice, the Pirates saw none of them. But the debunking of this myth did not sit well with baseball's commissioner, Ford Frick, for the particular reason that it was Frick himself, as a young sportswriter for the New York Journal, who had spread the story in the first place.

The 1960 Pirates were rated 13-10 underdogs by the bookies, but seemed even less likely than their predecessors to be awed by New York, even though these Yankees had won their last fifteen games of the season heading into the World Series. "We'll fight 'em until our teeth fall out and then we'll grab 'em with our gums," snarled Don Hoak, sounding like the former boxer and inveterate scrapper that he was. It was the nature of this team, Hoak said, that they would always rise to the challenge of the better opponents. Virgil Trucks, the batting practice pitcher, told anyone who approached him in the days before the series opener that Pittsburgh was the most relaxed team he had ever seen. Relaxed and gabby. When it came to quotable quotes, Pittsburgh was a gold mine for visiting sportswriters. Hoak, shortstop Groat (recovered from his wrist injury and ready to play), outfielder Gino Cimoli, trainer Danny Whelan, ace Deacon Law, pudgy old Smoky Burgess (who talked so much behind the plate Richie Ashburn once beseeched the ump to shut him up before Ashburn bopped him over the head with his bat), Vinegar Bend Mizell, the big galoots at first, Dick Stuart and Rocky Nelson, and the story-spinning dark Irishman, manager Danny Murtaugh (prone to blabbing about anything but the game itself) -- they all were go-to guys on deadline. The Post-Gazette, further short-cutting the process, enlisted Hoak, Groat, and Law to write stories during the series, or at least columns published under their by-lines.

Everyone was in on the action, it seemed, except the Pirate in the middle of the lineup who roamed right field. Roberto Clemente was indisputably an important member of the team, yet also in many ways alone. At the end of his sixth and finest season, he was still separated by culture, race, language, and group dynamics. He was the lone black player in the starting lineup and a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican, while none of the sportswriters for the major dailies in New York or Pittsburgh were black or spoke Spanish. Life is defined by images, especially public life, and the Pirates image was that of a band of scrappy, happy-go-lucky, fearless, gin-playing, hard-drinking, crew-cut, tobacco-chewing white guys. Where was the place in that picture for the proud, regal, seemingly diffident Roberto Clemente? He had led the team in runs batted in and total bases, finished second in batting average, hits, game-winning hits, runs scored, home runs, and triples, had the best arm on the team, played with style and every bit as much grit as Hoak or Groat, yet now was the invisible man. In the run-up to the World Series, the writers of Pittsburgh and New York, for all their overwrought coverage of the spectacle, gave Clemente barely a passing glance.

A notable exception, as usual, was the Pittsburgh Courier, the black weekly that had been paying close attention to Clemente all season. On the weekend before the series opener, sports editor Bill Nunn Jr. saw Clemente on the street in Schenley Heights, the middle-class black neighborhood where they both lived, and asked him how he felt about facing the mighty Yankees. The Pirates would win, Clemente assured him, his words echoing Hoak and Trucks. Although the Yankees had more power, he believed Pittsburgh was the better team, stocked with hard-nosed players who could not be intimidated. "We've been a relaxed team all season and I expect us to be the same in the Series," he said. "Pressure didn't get us down during the National League race. We fought off Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Los Angeles without cracking. Now that we've come this far, we aren't going to look back now." In Clemente's estimation, the Braves, not the Yankees, were the second-best team in baseball. "If the Braves had won the pennant, they would have been good enough to beat the Yankees, too." As for playing in Yankee Stadium, Clemente said he would not be haunted by the outfield ghosts of Ruth and DiMaggio, but he was concerned about the late-afternoon shadows. He had played there in the second 1960 All-Star game and found the ball hard to follow.

Aside from Nunn's interview, the other notice Clemente received before the series was negative. Someone had leaked a scouting report from the Yankees suggesting that the most effective way to pitch him was inside. "Knock him down the first time up and forget him," was the dismissive summary. Clemente laughed when asked about it, but the report bothered him. Like many black stars of that era, in a tradition that went back to Jackie Robinson, he got brushed back nearly every series, and he suspected that opposing pitchers chose him for retaliation in part because of the color of his skin. They'd been knocking him down all season in the National League, Clemente obse...

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