SXSW Doc ‘Clemente’ Showcases the Enduring Influence of a Pioneering MLB Star

It’s Game 6 of the 1971 World Series. Orioles-Pirates. Tied game, bottom of the ninth, two outs. Mark Belanger is on first when Don Buford rips a double down the line. Belanger should score easily on the play. Not today. In right field, the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente plays the carom perfectly — not easy in a visitor’s ballpark — and throws a perfect strike to catcher Manny Sanguillen, his best friend on the team. Belanger has to hold at third.

It was an extraordinary throw that Clemente made routinely during a Hall of Fame career that included two world titles, 3,000 hits, four batting titles, and 12 Golden Gloves. But it wasn’t all highlights, as the new documentary, “Clemente,” shows in aching detail. Even Clemente’s greatest talents were turned against him in an America that viewed number 21 as already having three strikes against him: Black, Puerto Rican and outspoken. Matter of fact, displaying his cannon arm earned him the slur of the “Puerto Rican hot dog” in the Pittsburgh press. “He just wanted everyone to know he was doing his best,” says his son Roberto Clemente, who established the Roberto Clemente Foundation, an organization committed to aiding at-risk youth, disaster relief and promoting global service leadership. “But him throwing like that they just said he was showing off. He had to live with that kind of stuff every day.”

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It’s been a half-century since Roberto Clemente was alive, and most Americans remember how he played — with joyous and reckless abandon — and how he died, on-board a plane flying supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve, 1972. (Almost his entire team attended Clemente’s memorial service, except for Sanguillen, who spent the day diving into the Atlantic Ocean near the crash site, in hopes of finding his friend’s body. It was never recovered.) But that’s just a small glimpse into a man seen as a sports hero in America and as a god in his native Puerto Rico.

That will change with David Altrogge’s feature-length “Clemente,” which premieres on March 11 at SXSW. You will be hearing about this documentary: the film has its own Murderer’s Row of producers, including Clemente’s three sons, indie director and baseball nut Richard Linklater and, most recently, LeBron James and Maverick Carter through James’ production company, Uninterrupted.

Despite his tragic end, it was Clemente’s optimism that drew Altrogge to the project. “I think in the last eight years or so there’s been a lot of darkness in the world,” says the director. “It’s just the times can feel very bleak, very hopeless. I started trying to think of people who gave people hope and inspired them. I know that sounds corny, but Roberto answered the question.”

Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh in 1955, just eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and the outfielder faced a road just as treacherous as Robinson’s, made more difficult as he grappled with English. The press delighted in quoting Clemente’s broken words in a way that they would never do to, say, a Southern farm boy. They anglicized his name to “Bobby” against his will and called him a hypochondriac simply because when they asked Clemente “how are you doing,” he took it literally and told reporters exactly how he was feeling.

Clemente wore the doubters down with his authenticity and righteousness. “He demanded respect,” says Luis Clemente, his middle son who helps run Sports City, a Clemente-inspired sports center in Puerto Rico. “He wanted to make sure that everyone else coming behind him would have that respect too.”

It didn’t come easy. When Clemente and his Black Pirate teammates were denied service in the Jim Crow South during spring training Florida bus trips, he demanded the minority ballplayers be given a station wagon so they could search out their own meals and not have to wait on the bus for scraps after the white players had eaten. (Like many athletes, Clemente motivated himself with both very real and perceived slights, including anger at finishing 8th in the 1960 MVP voting, an injustice not borne out by baseball analytics.)

“Clemente” is particularly adept at laying out how Clemente connected two places with seemingly little in common: rural Puerto Rico and the smokestack neighborhoods of Pittsburgh steelworkers. The film includes the story of Roberto missing the team bus to the airport because he was signing autographs after a home game, getting a ride from a random fan and the two becoming lifelong friends. “In a way, they were both what we would call secondary markets,” says Altrogge of Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico. “He didn’t play for the Yankees. He didn’t play for the Dodgers. He played in Pittsburgh. Both places know the importance of hard work and family.”

Many minority athletes of Clemente’s day were beaten down by a sports era that still thought Black people were not smart enough to be either NFL quarterbacks or MLB managers. But it never embittered Clemente, a man known for leaving his hotel room early and handing out coins to the impoverished, with whom he felt more comfortable talking than sports reporters.

“He was balanced,” says Roberto Jr. “He was not only a baseball player; he was a poet. He was a musician. He did pottery. He never got caught up in being a star.”

But he did use it to expand horizons. After the Pirates won the 1971 World Series and Clemente was named MVP, an announcer asked what he was feeling. He did something no one have done before: He first spoke in Spanish and thanked his family before switching to English. The impact that had in Puerto Rico still brings tears to the eyes of old-timers.

Cruelly, using his stardom for good cost Clemente his life. After reports of early earthquake relief supplies being stolen by the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Clemente decided to deliver the next plane of earthquake supplies himself, perhaps reasoning that government thieves wouldn’t dare steal from Roberto Clemente in the flesh. The plane was undermanned and overloaded; it crashed shortly after takeoff.

Nowadays, major league baseball is over one-third Latino, and it is hard to imagine baseball without the joy, laughter and flash that those players bring to a sometimes stodgy game. And that is in no small part due to Roberto Clemente.

Altrogge smiles at the idea. “You see it in baseball, and you see it in the world,” says Altrogge. “In the end, Roberto Clemente won.”

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