champion of the major leagues lowered himself to the pea-green carpet of his
48-foot living room and sprawled on his right side, flinging his left leg over
his right leg. He wore gold Oriental pajama tops, tan slacks, battered bedroom
slippers and—for purposes of the demonstration he was conducting—a tortured
grimace. "Like dis!" he cried, and then dug his fingers into his flesh,
just above his upraised left hip. Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates'
marvelous right fielder and their steadiest customer of the medical profession,
was showing how he must greet each new day in his life. He has a disk in his
back that insists on wandering, so when he awakens he must cross those legs,
dig at that flesh and listen for the sound of the disk popping back where it
Around the room
necks were craned and ears alerted for the successful conclusion of the
demonstration. Clemente's wife—the tall, beautiful Vera—sat solemnly in a gold
wing chair a few feet away. Way out in the right-field seats, ensconced on a
$1,000 velvet sofa in what may be called the Italian Provincial division of
Clemente's vast living room, were his 18-year-old nephew, Pablo, and Pablo's
buddy, Wilson. They sat fascinated, or at least they seemed fascinated, for it
may have been that Wilson, who says his hobby is girls, was wishing that minute
that Roberto would lend them his Cadillac.
cannot hear the disk now," shouted Roberto. "It is in place now. But
every morning you can hear it from here to there, in the whole room.
boop. Not only one boop but two, for there is another disk running around up in
the vicinity of Roberto's neck. For that one he must have someone manipulate
his neck muscles until the sound of the boop is heard.
All this herding
of disks, mind you, is but a nub on the staggering list of medical attentions
that Clemente has undergone during his 11 years as a Pirate. Relatively small
at 5 feet 10 inches and 180 pounds when able to take nourishment, the chronic
invalid has smooth skin, glistening muscles and perfect facial contours that
suggest the sturdy mahogany sculpture peddled in the souvenir shops of his
native Puerto Rico. His countrymen regard him as the most superb all-round
big-leaguer to emerge from their island, while many Pittsburghers have
concluded that the only thing that can keep Clemente from making them forget
Paul Waner is a sudden attack of good health.
Now 31, Clemente
over the past five pain-filled years has won three National League batting
championships (to say nothing of leading both leagues for the past two years)
and has averaged .330, a level of consistency that no other big-leaguer has
equaled during this half decade. In strength and accuracy his throwing arm has
surpassed that of the old Brooklyn cannon, Carl Furillo, and if Roberto's genes
are any indication his arm is not about to weaken. "My mother is 75,"
he says. "Last year she threw out the first pitch of the season. She put
something on it, too." Because Roberto smolders with an intense belief in
himself, some ballplayers argue that his only real malady is a serious puffing
of the head, but the clicking of X-ray machines, the scraping of scalpels, the
trickle of intravenous feeding and the scratching of pens upon prescription
pads have mounted to such a fortissimo that Roberto would seem to be a fit
subject for graduate research. The moment when Roberto first set eyes on his
wife is the story of his life: he spied her in a drugstore, where he had gone
to buy medication for an ailing leg.
"I played only
two innings in the winter league this year," sighed Roberto, having picked
himself off the carpet and dumped himself into a chair. "I was having
headaches, headaches, headaches, so I had to quit." He had hoped to rest at
his split-level Spanish-style house atop a hill in Rio Piedras, a suburb of San
Juan. To the left of the living room an open-air tropical garden flourishes in
the sun and rain that descend through overhead beams, and along the front of
the living room a sunken parlor looks out on a veranda that by night offers a
glittering view of all San Juan, clear down to the bay. Roberto had the house
built a year ago at a cost of $65,000 and, because of galloping real-estate
values, it is worth at least $100,000 today. But now his voice rose and swept
out across the veranda and transported down the Puerto Rican hillside all the
heartfelt melancholy that has ever been sounded in sad Spanish song and
"My head still
hurts. The pain splits my head. The doctors say it's tension. They say I worry
too much. I've tried tranquilizers, but they don't work. My foot is killing me.
I got this tendon in my left heel that rubs against the bone, and I cannot run
on it at all. I'm weary, I tell you. All the time it's go here, speak there, do
dis, do dat. Always, always, always. When I go to spring training, that's when
I take my rest."
On days when
Puerto Ricans did not require him to address luncheons and cut ribbons, Roberto
lay abed from midnight till noon, then arose for breakfast and returned to bed
till 4:30 p.m. He usually got about two hours' sleep in all that time. He is
one of the world's great insomniacs because, he explained earnestly, he lies
awake worrying that he will not be able to fall asleep.
"When I don't
sleep I don't feel like eating and I lose weight," Roberto said.