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Myron Cope
March 07, 1966
Roberto Clemente of the Pirates has thrice won the National League batting championship and is a superb fielder, but he is famous for his ailments—fancied, real and real fancy
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March 07, 1966

Aches And Pains And Three Batting Titles

Roberto Clemente of the Pirates has thrice won the National League batting championship and is a superb fielder, but he is famous for his ailments—fancied, real and real fancy

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By all odds, Roberto's most exotic infirmity struck him after the 1964 season, when he fell desperately ill in Puerto Rico. Dr. Bus� is not certain to this day whether Roberto had contracted autumnal malaria barnstorming in Santo Domingo or had picked up a systemic paratyphoid infection from the hogs on a small farm he owns, but Roberto himself knows what he had. "Both," he says.

His condition alternated daily between delirium and stupor, says Dr. Bus�, and he lost 23 pounds. Alas, none of the Pirates had been in Puerto Rico and been an eyewitness. When Roberto reported to spring camp and began cracking line drives, all hands agreed that if he had had malaria they wanted some.

Clemente bridles at the suggestion that perhaps he only thought he had malaria. "If a Latin player or even an American Negro is sick," Roberto protests, "they say it is all in the head. Felipe Alou once went to his team doctor and the doctor said, 'You don't have anything.' So he went to a private doctor and the doctor said, 'You have a broken foot.' "

For Roberto, life in the big leagues has been a series of outrages. He is by no means anti-gringo—in fact, his relationship with Pittsburgh fans is one of the unwavering love stories of the national pastime—but, as a Latin, he feels persecuted. He is vociferously resentful of the fact that he is the least known, least sung superstar in baseball. "With my eyes blind I can throw to the base," he snaps. "I know that. If Mantle have the arm I have you will put it in headlines 'cause he is an American. You never give me credit. How many players in history win three batting titles?" Not including Roberto, only 11 since 1876. "The sports-writers don't mention that. They ask me, 'What you think about dis, what you think about dat?'"

Refusing to underestimate himself, Roberto repeatedly has declared, "For me, I am the best ballplayer in the world." His words provoke indignation on all sides, and his efforts to explain them merely stiffen the indignation. "I say, 'For me, for myself!' " he shouts. The Stateside listener, taking him literally, can only conclude that in Roberto's own mind he does think he is better than Mays or Aaron or anyone else in the business, and the impression remains fixed until one happens across a man named Libertario Avil�s, a worldly San Juan engineer who built Roberto's house and is one of his good friends. Says Avil�s: "You have to understand that the Latin is touchy. If you say to me, 'Who is the best engineer in town?' I will say, 'For me, I am the best.' It is a Spanish saying, an expression of self-respect. You are not to underestimate yourself, but that does not mean you are to underestimate anyone else's ability."

Though Roberto's imperfect command of English has prevented him from explaining himself as clearly as Avil�s does, he bristles that no amount of fluency would spare him from being portrayed in the American press as a stupid greenhorn. "I'm gonna tell you dis—it's one of the things that kill me most in the States," he says. "I know I don't speak as bad as they say I speak. I know that I don't have the good English pronunciation, because my tongue belong to Spanish, but I know where the verb, the article, the pronoun, whatever it is, go. I never in my life start a sentence with 'me,' but if I start it with 'I' the sportswriters say 'me.' 'Me Tarzan, you Jane.' " For a fact, Roberto is typed, even by ballplayers who dress alongside him daily. Says one Pirate. "Just before he goes out and wears the ball out he'll say, 'Me no feel good today. Maybe me no play.' " During Roberto's one season of minor league ball, at Montreal in 1954, he understood practically no English. A player whom he had robbed of an extra-base hit called him an s.o.b., whereupon Roberto, assuming he was being complimented on the catch, replied, "Sank you." But he worked hard at his English. He still garbles an occasional phrase, says dis and dat somewhat more often than this and that and sometimes is stumped for the word he seeks, yet his conversation is perfectly intelligible. He resents coming off in print like an M-G-M Sioux chief, almost as much as he resented the Pittsburgh woman who once asked him if he wears a loincloth when home in Puerto Rico.

Clemente probably is wrong to think the Stateside press has neglected his talent because he's a Latin, but his batting averages of the past six years—.314, .351, .312, .320, .339 and .329—make it seem incredible that his name has not entered the elite Mays-Mantle-Aaron circle.

In the outfield he has done it all. Although not exceptionally swift, he is the master of the shoestring catch. ("I can run very fast bending down," he explains.) Only last season Roberto fielded a bunt—that's right, a bunt—that had rolled to shortstop. Shortstop Gene Alley had gone to cover third base but, as if from nowhere, Roberto dived headlong at the ball and, with his face in the dirt, threw out Houston base runner Walter Bond at third.

Scarcely credible? Nevertheless, the description suits Clemente's throwing arm, too. From Forbes Field's right-center-field gate, a distance of about 420 feet, he once threw out Harvey Haddix at the plate, on one bounce. "I tear a ligament," he of course recalls.

Roberto's value, so far as Brave Manager Bobby Bragan is concerned, is on a par with that of Hall of Fame players. "The best way to describe Roberto Clemente," says Bragan, "is to say, if he were playing in New York they'd be comparing him to DiMaggio. I would say his greatness is limited only by the fact that he does not hit the long ball consistently and by the fact that he is not playing in New York, or even Chicago or Los Angeles."

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