New book for the younger set details Pirates’ legend’s life on and off the field
When Andrew Conte was writing “The Color of Sundays,” a book about the late Pittsburgh Steelers scout Bill Nunn, he started another project. One that will resonate with any Pittsburgh sports fan 50 and older.
But “All About Roberto Clemente” (Blue River Press, $5.99), isn’t for fans who saw the Pirates Hall of Famer play at Forbes Field or Three Rivers Stadium. It’s for their children and grandchildren.
“I’m 45 and I didn’t know some of the legends about Roberto,” says Conte, who is director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University and a former Tribune-Review reporter.
Those who saw Clemente play will never forget his laser-like throws from right field that froze baserunners, or his daring moves on the basepaths. But Conte’s book gives as much if not more time to Roberto Clemente the human being.
“There’s so much more to it than what people talk about,” he says. “When you go to PNC Park, (Clemente’s No. 21) is far and away the most popular jersey in the stands. For a lot of those fans, I don’t know if they realize just how impactful he was. Not just in Pittsburgh, not just in baseball, but on humanity.”
When Clemente arrived in Montreal in 1953, where he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate before the Pirates acquired his rights, he had trouble fitting in. Conte says whites considered him to be black; blacks didn’t understand why he spoke Spanish.
“People treated him like there was something wrong with him because he couldn’t speak English,” Conte says.
Clemente’s standing was further exacerbated by news reporters, who Conte contends “weren’t necessarily fair to him.” But that was not the case with fans, who seemed to accept Clemente as one of their own long before the media. Part of that acceptance might have been due to the ordinary circumstances of Clemente’s life outside of baseball.
“He lived in the Hill District and he was a neighbor to people, Conte says. “They could relate more directly to him as a person. He was not a multi-millionaire.”
Clemente also was devoted to charitable causes throughout this life. On road trips, he would frequently visit children at hospitals.
Often overlooked was Clemente’s love of the United States. After the 1958 season, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines Corps Reserves and spent six months on active duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Parris Island in South Carolina.
“He was committed to being an American and setting that example was natural for him,” Conte says.
Conte is too young to have seen Clemente play in person, having only read and heard stories from relatives about his achievements. It wasn’t until he took a trip to Puerto Rico that he was able to grasp how Clemente first saw the world.
“When I talk in the book about him looking out and seeing the green mountains in the distance, we were there,” he says. “We went up and went through those mountains and experienced the fog on the island.”
What Conte found most remarkable is Clemente’s enduring stature, particularly on baseball players from the Caribbean. Younger fans might regard him as an image on a highlight reel, a dashing and handsome athlete from the past. But for generations of players from his homeland, he’s the equivalent of Jackie Robinson, a trailblazer whose influence has never waned.
“He backed up his legacy not just with what he did on the field,” Conte says. “He created this sports city (in Carolina, Puerto Rico). A lot of famous players have come up through that sports city, and they really honor his story by the way they play. For a lot of them, they realize he’s bigger than baseball. The way you carry yourself is important. The way you interact with fans is important.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.