three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
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The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

A-ClementeIt might have been the small-town media market, the shadow of other great right fielders, or the mythology that attended his death while flying emergency supplies to earthquake- stricken Nicaragua on New Years Eve, 1972. Whatever the cause, Roberto Clemente’s legacy has never burned with the same intensity as his on-field exploits with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes, he was the first Latino player enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That he was rushed in after his death made the indoctrination more an emotional tribute to his humanitarianism than to his awesome throwing arm, speed on the base paths, or lifetime batting average of .317. David Maraniss captures the profound impact Clemente had on his sport, his country, and his world in just 38 years.
Simon & Schuster. 416 pages. $26. ISBN: 0743217810

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"As a biographer, Maraniss simultaneously captures Clemente the baseball star, Clemente the family man, Clemente the civil rights pioneer, Clemente the humanitarian and Clemente the occasional diva. … Maraniss demonstrates his talent as an investigative reporter." Steve Weinberg

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"He’s a tantalizing figure because it is just as easy to imagine him, had he lived, being governor of Puerto Rico as being manager of the Pirates. Burning, as Maraniss describes it, ‘with the anger of the underappreciated artist,’ Clemente got his full due only after he was gone from the game." Patrick Goldstein

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the successes of Maraniss’s book is his characterization of his subject. Part of Clemente’s greatness manifested itself in his play. So Maraniss develops a picture of the man as much through his consistently epic hitting, throwing, and baserunning as through his social doings." Donnell Alexander

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If there is a weakness in the book, it is the absence of the Latino voice and sensibility. … Mr. Maraniss might have tried harder to capture the culture that Clemente grew up in or perhaps talked to more Puerto Ricans, both on the island itself and in the U.S., about the special meaning Clemente had for them." Steven Wulf

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"Maraniss is an experienced biographer whose attention to detail is apparent from the first page of this intriguing picture of baseball’s first Latin American Hall of Famer, but that same meticulous approach to the examination of Clemente’s 18-year major league career also keeps Clemente from being an even more entertaining read." Peter Schmuck

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Though Maraniss conducted interviews with Clemente’s teammates and family members, the narrative feels more researched than reported—heavy on newspaper accounts and the hagiographic memories of Pirates rooters whom the author seems to have met by happenstance along the way." Bruce Schoenfeld

Chicago Sun-Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Except for a riveting closing section describing the mission of mercy to earthquake victims in Nicaragua that resulted in the plane crash that took Clemente’s life, the book fails to penetrate the surface of the most remote, and perhaps mythic, baseball superstar of the last half century. It is hard to resist the notion, in fact, that the reason for this book was not Clemente’s life but his death." Ron Rapoport

Critical Summary

It’s hard not to feel that Clemente, for all its virtues, is a bit of a letdown. With a Pulitzer Prize and notable biographies of Bill Clinton (First in His Class) and Vince Lombardi (When Pride Still Mattered) under his belt, David Maraniss sets high expectations. He mostly satisfies by revealing details about Clemente’s tragic death and the compassionate instincts and dogged stubbornness that enabled it and by rightfully placing him alongside his generation’s best players. But some critics note a reliance on research rather than reporting, which leaves Maraniss’s famously inscrutable subject opaque until the closing pages. Still, not every hit is a homer, and critics applaud Maraniss for delivering the first notable biography of one of the most compelling players to take the diamond.