Roberto Clemente: Baseball’s Last Hero


It was on this day in 1972, that baseball great Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering food and water to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He has canceled all plans to celebrate the new year, opting instead to be a ray of hope for victims in need and in desperation. He was already a baseball legend before that tragic day, but now he was an immortal. Please enjoy this post from John Bernhardt who reviewed the must read book, “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” for us this past summer.  – Joe D. 

The new GM was cool and manipulative in his transactions, meticulous with his records, formal in his speech, stingy with his money, interested equally in a player’s psychological disposition and his ability to learn an elusive hook slide.

This GM’s world could be studied, categorized, and explained. Good things did not fall upon people, or baseball clubs, by accident. Worthwhile doesn’t generally just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Luck is the residue of design.

So what is the design? The club was in a downward spiral when he arrived. He strongly believed when they got better it would not be through luck. He expanded the number of minor league affiliates and started stockpiling them with young players underscoring his belief that, in baseball, the surest way to get quality was through quantity. He spent what seemed to him was a huge sum on prospects. He tried to rid the team of popular players who in his opinion could never take his new franchise to a championship.

When I found this account, it read like a slice of a sports column written by Mike Vaccaro, Adam Rubin, or Joel Sherman about the Met General Manager Sandy Alderson. I couldn’t help but think of the Met General Manager. The parallels were obvious, resembling a blueprint of sorts for the path the Met GM has followed over the past three years.

In fact, the piece is an adaptation of sorts from “Clemente,” a fascinating and enlightening biography written by David Maraniss, describing the strategies employed by Branch Rickey when he was hired to turn around the fortunes of a dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates franchise in the first half of the 1950’s.

I simply substituted ‘the new GM‘ for places where David Maraniss had used Branch Rickey and sliced and diced a tad to hide the identity of the man being described. Do I have any deep perspectives or nuggets of wisdom to add to the comparison. No. I just thought it was interesting how circumstances from two completely different baseball eras could draw parallels that appear to align so neatly.

In Rickey’s case his strategies to transform the Pirates did not find success during his tenure as GM. That’s not intended as an indictment of Sandy Alderson. I’m just stating facts. And, I’m one of those battered Met fans who’s loyalty is sometimes challenged because I still believe Sandy Alderson has administered wisely. With some enlightened moves this off-season and a little bit of luck,it’s possible we could begin to see a measurable difference next summer.

In Branch Rickey’s case, his work in Pittsburgh was not all for naught. Buried in that stockpile of young prospects Rickey brought to the Iron City were some baseball gems, and the one that shone the brightest, a guy named Clemente. Those gems did help turn around the Pirates fortunes to eventually bring the Bucs the World Series title they coveted, but not until Rickey had departed.

St. Louis Cardinals vs Pittsburgh Pirates

What I do know is that David Maraniss is a marvelous writer who weaves together Roberto Clemente’s story into a compelling can’t-put-the-book-down read.

Another fascinating comparison I read was Clemente’s prescription for breaking out of a batting slump. Maraniss paints Clemente as an intelligent man with a restless mind that was constantly considering life. With a blend of logic and superstition,

Clemente came up with theories about everything.

One of those theories explained how baseball batters could shuck a batting slump. As Maraniss describes it, Clemente was adamant that the way to break out of a batting slump was to make sure you got at least three hacks at the ball every time you batted.

The Pirate great reasoned that using his theory with 4 at-bats in a game, the percentages shifted your way. All you needed was one good contact with ball to bat out of the twelve tries to get a hit.

Elegantly simple. If you want to break out of a slump try swinging at the ball. I loved it. What a contrast to the sabermetric world that governs the baseball world of today.

The Clemente story takes me back to a baseball world I studied using baseball cards when I was a kid. I adored Clemente. Why? Our birthdays fell on the same calendar day of the year. That was a big deal to a kid who loved baseball. I can remember scouring my cards to find somebody born on August 18. When I finally found the guy it was the great Roberto Clemente.

Maraniss reintroduces you to so many names from the past, and helps you expand your understanding of baseball’s prejudice and discrimination against all people of color. It’s a great read.Check it out.


About John Bernhardt 165 Articles
MMO Minor League Analyst John Bernhardt is a retired public school teacher and administrator, who still coaches high school baseball. Growing up in a Yankees household, Bernhardt was an ardent Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra fan. When the Yankees fired Yogi in his first season as the Bomber manager, curiosity turned to passion when the Mets signed Berra as a player/coach and he has pulled for the Mets ever since. In retirement, John writes the sports for a local weekly, The Catskill Mountain News and hosts Tip-Off, a Friday morning sports hour, from 8:00-9:00 on WIOX, 91.3 F.M.