In an era when baseball was arguably more than just a game, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente occupied his own place in the American consciousness. Born in Puerto Rico in 1934, Clemente helped win his team two World Series before his tragic death in an airplane crash in 1972. But there are certain aspects of "The Great One's" life outside the game that have in large part inspired "21," a new comics biography of Clemente by writer-artist Wilfred Santiago and released in September by Fantagraphics Books. CBR News caught up with Santiago to discuss "21" and the changing cultural climate that Clemente came to endure.
In the Pirates' second World Series game – his final performance – Clemente and his team put on "An uncanny showcase of how baseball was played," Wilfred Santiago told CBR News. "He was a very good all-around baseball player… and the eleventh player to reach 3,000 hits."
But to have inspired a graphic novel biography, of course there's a bit more to the story and persona of this legendary player, facets that Santiago said, "are not particularly in line with the behaviors of a typical baseball player of today or even back then. Clemente could have been an engineer, and he would still be Clemente. He probably would still be called 'The Great One,' but as an engineer. Baseball gave him a bigger, public stage to achieve his missions, if you will.
"The last game, where he hits the 3,000th hit, is a big aspect of '21,'" Santiago said, "and the story revolves around it. Clemente lived through a time of big changes in America and had to overcome many hardships to succeed. But he was relentless in his determination. Perhaps to a fault. Also his childhood, family, things that were important to Clemente growing up [in Puerto Rico]."
Much of Clemente's greatness, Santiago explains, comes from the challenges he had to overcome in an era when American life was still very tangibly divided by race. "Clemente's career began in 1954 and ended in 1972, from the birth of the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam war era-or Disco, depends on which you consider to be more tragic-and the Cold War," Santiago said. "And there were many dramatic changes that had an effect on baseball, as well baseball's effect in the country. What role did baseball have in those changes? Is baseball a reflection of who we are or the other way around? To me, it seems it goes both ways.
"By 1947, Jackie Robinson already broke baseball's color barrier. And I use that term understanding that a lot is always lost in its abstractness. For Jackie, the whole weight of the black experience in the U.S. was on his shoulders-his family, ancestors, each of those individuals' lives and his own. And he couldn't suck. He had to succeed in front of an audience who cheered for his failure; for some white folks, integrated baseball was unacceptable, but within the coordinates of the diamond, race matters little. Jackie showed those that he was capable of playing the game as well or even better than a white player. In the field there was no evidence of black inferiority and once you throw that possibility out there... Eventually the audience had to accept that the baseball field will have a couple of brown spots.
"And you know, the audience is the people. Branch Rickey [general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1942-1950] signed Jackie Robinson, he saw blacks as equals and he and Robinson and others carefully worked to successfully integrated baseball.
"This was a moment where baseball was deliberately a vanguard in pushing the boundaries of racial tolerance, a challenge to social standards-this was almost 20 years before the end of Jim Crow."
This context, both in terms of time period and baseball's place in society as "America's pastime," prove essential to Roberto Clemente's role in history. "The story of Clemente and baseball history taking place between the '50s and '70s is important, as are the effects of technologies developed in those times and the economic opportunities that these presented for the baseball institution-television, live broadcast, night time games and the shift of a society that began to recognize and mobilize for racial equality," Santiago said. "By the 1970s, the Pirates became the first team to ever have an all black and Latino team standing in the field."
In some ways, Santiago suggests, the racial issue for Clemente was even more complex than it had been for Jackie Robinson. "The first Major League Puerto Rican player [Hiram Bithorn] was light-skinned and big; there were language difficulties, but he could sit anywhere he pleased. At worst, he had to deal with the press putting the 'fruit basket' on his head and fit the whole crazy, dancing, dumb Latino stereotype. A lot had to do to with where you measured on the skin color chromatic scale-one hour too many under the sun and suddenly you have to sit in the back of the bus.
"Clemente was a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, so dealing with segregation at age 19 in the early 1950s couldn't make sense to him. In Puerto Rico, a person or family might have racial prejudice and be opposed to a marriage or relationship; Clemente himself experienced something similar with a girlfriend. But in Puerto Rico in the '50s, there was no institutionalized racism like in the U.S. south. There was no color divide with services, no Ku Klux Klan or lynchings. The economic wedge was more prevalent in P.R. in the 1950s. The prejudice Clemente experienced in the U.S. didn't have context. His family and ancestors weren't caught in the slave trade and shipped to North America, they hadn't experienced the Civil War and the rest of black history to that point in the U.S.
"Had Clemente looked white, or like a light-skinned Latino, he would have experienced a different type of prejudice, but certainly his life would have not been in such danger in the U.S. back in those days. Clemente struggled with the English language, and the press sometimes belittled him because of this. That's something he still would have had to deal with even if his skin wasn't black. But it was and he had to deal with things like segregation and racism out of the blue. Imagine, you get off in a land where rules are set according to the color of your skin-sounds pretty ridiculous to me even now. Like some Kafka story. Clemente felt he was being discriminated against for being black and Hispanic."
"21" is Santiago's second graphic novel, following 2004's "In My Darkest Hour." Asked about why he chose to create a biographical piece for a follow-up, the author said Clemente's story is something he's always been interested in telling. "For quite some time I had considered doing a biography, and on my short list of subjects, Clemente was on top of it," Santiago said. "After 'Darkest Hour,' it felt like a change of pace. So I pitched various ideas to Gary [Groth, Fantagraphics publisher] for my second book and Clemente was one of those ideas. We agreed on the potential of doing the Clemente biography."
The artistic approach to "21," which mixes a somewhat cartoony style with varying degrees of texture, draws significant inspiration from the book's visual subject matter. "The colors of the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform were a starting point," Santiago said, referring to the book's persistent yellow-and-black tones. "It also happened to really compliment and fit like a glove how the comic was envisioned. The color of the pages or style of the art, etc. were determined by their function in the story, whether those choices were made spontaneously, or deliberately. I would have used a different palette if it had not served the purpose and mood of the storyline. The Pirates colors were a nice inspiration."
Writing about Clemente, imagining him as a character, required thinking of qualities a person would have to possess in order to thrive in such an atmosphere. "Roberto was a curious underdog; he embodied determination," Santiago said. "His drive and consistency on and off the baseball field is admirable. There was no time to waste. Clemente lived with urgency and lived to the fullest, even though he died young. Clemente carried himself in a completely dignified matter, was proud of who he was, loved and helped children and didn't tolerate injustice. Clemente understood baseball gave him a bigger voice and money to expand the capacity of his work. He saw not helping others in a given opportunity as a waste of time. Of course, being a selfish bastard myself, it can really put you on the spot. I mean, is this what decent human beings do? Am I supposed to follow through? I don't think I have the determination."
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