Forty years ago this next New Year’s Eve, baseball giant Roberto Clemente boarded an aging DC-7 en route to Managua, Nicaragua. He had read reports that cronies of Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza were intercepting all the international aid organizations, including the one Clemente chaired, had sent to Nicaragua to help the victims of the December 23, 1972 earthquake that killed 7,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Clemente wanted to personally ensure that whatever future aid his committee sent made its way to those who needed it the most. Minutes after the DC-7 took off from the Isla Verde International Airport, it crashed near the coast of San Juan. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
Roberto Clemente’s sudden and tragic death cut short a career that had hit stratospheric heights. For many Puerto Ricans in the island and the United States, Clemente was more than a hero: he was a role model. Clemente’s resilience, drive, and personality inspired many Puerto Ricans and Latinos. The racial and linguistic prejudices and barriers of the time (which, let’s be clear, have yet to be fully torn down) reinforced his pride as a Black Puerto Rican and he had no qualms in loudly proclaiming it. He split his time equally between Puerto Rico and the United States, building a bridge between both countries through his daring accomplishments in the field, and his humanitarian work.
Clemente still fascinates us. In the last six years alone, he’s been the subject of books (David Maraniss’ “Clemente: The Passion & Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero”), a TV documentary (PBS’ “American Experience: Roberto Clemente”), a wonderful graphic novel by Puerto Rico-born and Chicago-based graphic artist Wilfred Santiago (“21: The Story of Roberto Clemente”) and a traveling exhibit produced by the Smithsonian Institutions’ Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian Latino Center, el Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, and the Carimar Design and Research Studio with the collaboration of Roberto Clemente’s family. Titled “Beyond Baseball: the Life of Roberto Clemente,” the exhibit premiered in 2007 at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and can currently be seen in the new building of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Arts Alliance until June 3 before it heads back to the Smithsonian. You can also experience the exhibit online, where you can access video and audio clips of Clemente at his best but also images of the baseball cards bearing his image and classroom lessons.
Modest in scope and size, “Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente” offers visitors unfamiliar with the baseball legend a quick overview of Clemente’s life and accomplishments, and long-time admirers a reminder of what made this humble man from Carolina, Puerto Rico larger than life. The exhibit also explores how baseball was introduced in the Caribbean and how the island’s economic conditions influenced Clemente to pursue the path he chose. It doesn’t shy away either from evoking the racism Clemente encountered in this country from the moment he was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Beyond Baseball” is a perfect complement to Santiago’s graphic novel. Both offer broad and fine strokes. But Santiago’s work fills in the blanks, fleshing out the information provided by the exhibit. It offers such tantalizing details as Clemente’s childhood nickname (“Momen” for his frequent use of the phrase “un momentito”), the ghostly presence of his deceased sister Anairis, and his courtship of his future wife Vera. Santiago also offers historical context through such devices as radio broadcasts, chapters on Taíno myth and Puerto Rican culture and society in general extracted from such American publications as National Geographic, and the comic book equivalent of a voice-over narrator.
Both the graphic novel and the exhibit introduce a man who not only questioned the prejudices of the era but changed those perceptions through his own actions, whether setting career highs in homeruns and RBIs or offering free baseball lessons to poor children in Puerto Rico. What’s more, they (and the American Experience documentary broadcast four years ago) remind us that Clemente is more than a myth. He was one of us: a man with a loving family, who loved his land, his career, his people and who dared to dream big. He was also one heck of a good guy. We need more men and women like him in these dark times.