Roberto Clemente is a name that pops up in almost any and every bit of baseball writing from about 1955 onward. It seems incredible now, but in 1955 there were only a handful of non-white men in Major League Baseball. The “segregated” game mentality of the dead ball era and Negro Leagues still clung to the sport. Some owners had an inkling of the wellspring of talent available in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, but it took time. Branch Rickie, who along with the great Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947, was with Pittsburgh in 1950.
The Pirates drafted Clemente from the Dodger farm system in 1955. Within two years, he became the nucleus of the championship Pirate teams of the 1960s. It had been eight years since Jackie Robinson had signed with the Dodgers, and like him, Clemente had to endure taunting racial shouts from the stands. To make things worse, he spoke little English. Over time, he learned the language, but in the meantime he spoke baseball, and spoke it well. During 18 seasons in Pittsburgh, in some 2,400 games, he amassed 3,000 hits, 12 Gold Gloves, 2 Most Valuable Player awards, 12 All-Star appearances, and the list goes on. Hall of Fame stuff, without a doubt. Then his life – and career – was tragically cut short in a plane crash in 1972.
All this leads up to the biographical graphic novel 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago. Personally, this was my first experience with the graphic novel format, and I indeed found that a different reading style is needed. With prose (i.e. novels, essays), you form pictures in your mind; however, with the graphic novel format the pictures are already there. I found myself turning back and re-examining the pages often, digging through the many details that the words and images delivered.
The story unfolds in earth tone – sepia illustrations, not gaudy, in keeping with the artist’s respect for the story and the subject. Clemente’s early life is here and one gets a real feel for his family and friends, and not without humor. As a lifelong Yankees fan, I found myself laughing aloud at his depiction of the hated Bronx rivals in the 1960 World Series. This book should appeal to graphic novel fans, baseball fans, anyone who likes a great “bigger then fiction” story, and many others.Visit: Wilfred Santiago | Fantagraphics
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon