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.
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.
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?'"
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."