ROBERTO CLEMENTE DIED ON NEW YEAR’S EVE, 1972, when a small plane carrying Clemente, four other men, and 16,000 pounds of aid bound for earthquake-wracked Nicaragua disappeared into the waters off Clemente’s native Puerto Rico. This made it that much more peculiar when, a few years ago, Clemente started showing up on the subway in New York City. Not the man himself, of course, but his image, which turned up in the subway advertising for a sketchy-seeming law firm: sketchy in that the phone number listed on their se habla Espanol-minded advertisements was, confoundingly and perhaps a little offensively, 1-800-MARGARITA. Straphangers were left to ponder the connection between a baseball player and the cash settlements (hard against Clemente’s image, in garish red numbers) won by the aforementioned ambulance-chasing concern for victims of lead paint or asbestos. So what, exactly, was the great Roberto Clemente doing there on the 4/5/6, besides corkscrewing through the follow-through of his still-familiar right-handed swing, wildly wide of the multiple contexts in which he existed during his life.
Roberto Clemente is a sainted name and image explained partly, at best, by the anodyne words and small-print statistical code on the back of his baseball cards, or those on his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It says something about the law firm’s shamelessness that they would choose a “this is what those guys like, right?” phone number while hitching a ride with so significant a figure, but it also says something about their canniness. Clemente is a symbol of altruism, righteousness, and Boricua pride potent enough — or so our personal-injury lawyers must have hoped — to add something fine to their shabby subway come-on. The very permanence and vagueness of Clemente’s legacy — he was good and he was great and that is about that, forever and ever amen — makes such a tacky tribute possible.
Two generations after his last game as a baseball player and his disappearance into the Caribbean, Clemente endures in the alternately flattering and flattening forbidden zone of baseball mythos: as a name on Major League Baseball’s annual citizenship award, as the subject of a statue outside Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank Park, as a Spanish-speaking stand-in for Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first truly great Latin American star, and finally as something of a cipher. The only player for whom the Baseball Hall of Fame waived its traditional five-year waiting period — Clemente was voted into the Hall in a landslide in 1973, mere months after his death — the Pirates’ star found himself entombed in baseball’s pantheon when he still had plenty of life due to him. He has been locked in there ever since, his goodnesses and greatnesses sanitized and held in air-conditioned suspension in Cooperstown.
And so Clemente still exists: his name is on the 304-acre sports campus he built near his hometown of Carolina, in Puerto Rico, and his name is on the pedestrian bridge that fans cross to reach PNC Bank Park on game-days. But, more broadly, the sentimental way in which he has been remembered has made him, if not forgettable, certainly a bit less human: one of the game’s household saints.
Which is the way the market works on things like this, but which also frankly sucks. Clemente was — must have been — more than the man described in the prefatory encomium-graf that prefaces Major League Baseball’s annual announcement of the Roberto Clemente Citizenship Award. Because I write about sports for a living and care about them as a pastime, I can tell you that Fantagraphics‘ promo-language claim that “No other baseball player dominated the 1960s like Roberto Clemente” is pretty clearly false, given that Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson also played baseball during that decade; I can also tell you that he was tremendous at baseball, and is still renowned as one of the greatest defensive outfielders ever to play. And because I read what little there is to read about Roberto Clemente during my baseball-crazed youth — it was the same story retold in more or less the same words, with the same impressive stats and run-down of accomplishments and awards on behind — I can tell you that 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, a new graphic biography by Wilfred Santiago, does not crack open the mythos encasing Clemente’s life story to let any long-concealed truths or insights escape.
Which, finally, is fine. There is a robust myth-complication market for a certain type of Dead White Ballplayer: every couple of years brings a new, darker biography of Mickey Mantle, for instance. (The most recent of these, Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy, features a multifariously and massively wasted Mantle, in his soused Vegas-greeter dotage, passing out mid-lech, his hand halfway up Leavy’s thigh in a bleak casino dining room.) The edifice of Clemente’s mythos is not so great, and not so white-marble ostentatious, as those of others in his Cooperstown cohort. And it may well be that Clemente was every bit as uncomplicated in his goodness — exceedingly competitive and driven, but also kind and community-minded and joyous — as the person revealed in David Maraniss’s 2006 biography Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero and celebrated again in 21. The two religiously loaded words in Maraniss’s subtitle hint at just how mindful all who approach are of Clemente’s comparatively smudge-free halo.
There may yet be a great life of Clemente to be written: one that clears away the accrued sentimentalities, shatters the ossified True Hero Of The Game brand, and reveals what kind of man made the journey from the cane-field poverty of pre-commonwealth Puerto Rico to superstardom in Pittsburgh. Wilfred Santiago does not try to write that book. But what he does to animate the myth is valuable all the same, and makes for an occasionally eye-popping turn through Clemente’s astounding life. Santiago does this animating literally — with pictures, speech-bubbles, little action-boxes, and so on — and figuratively: 21, despite its shortcomings as biography, baseball history, and narrative, breathes some needed vitality into one of the dustier figures of baseball’s great, inert pantheon.
Much of that is owed to Santiago’s vivid artwork. Despite restricting himself to a palette roughly paralleling that of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ uniform (smoky flannel grays, smudgy gold, periodic bursts and expanses of black), the grace of Santiago’s visual storytelling far surpasses his often flat writing. As someone more accustomed to your all-prose reading experiences (this parenthetical seems an ideal place to cop to my profound ignorance of the graphic medium) Santiago’s literary shortcomings tended to be the first things I noticed.
These manifest most notably through an overarching and reverential corniness: there’s the family-members-laughing-at-not-so-funny-jokes wholesomeness of the book’s first act, set during Clemente’s childhood in Puerto Rico, which is sweet but a little stilted; there’s the less sweet and similarly stilted ballplayer banter; then the Hollywood-familiar crypto-slapstick awkwardness of Clemente’s first encounter with his disapproving father-in-law to be. More glaringly, Santiago boots what should be a few easy chances: numerous bits of baseball idiom come out wrong, with the book’s informal chorus of play-by-play broadcasters periodically delivering such it-would-never-be-said-that-way flubs such as “The Santurce Crabbers beat the Magallanes two to four!” Interstitial bits on Puerto Rican myth, music, and colonial history reach for a broader significance that isn’t supported by the text. Santiago’s on sturdier ground in the book’s graceful framing section, which follows a Pirates fan around a rainy Three Rivers Stadium on September 30, 1972, the day of Clemente’s 3,000th (and final) big league hit. In general, though, the words on the pages of “21” are steeped in a familiar, friendly fog of myth.
And it doesn’t matter: 21‘s eloquence is visual, and it is a very real eloquence. The character of Roberto Clemente is nearly hugged to death in this particular portrayal: he’s virtuous and charming and earnest and respectful to elders, and thus kind of dull. But the world around him is alive, and Santiago’s expressive (and occasionally, bracingly expressionistic) approach to portraying Clemente’s wild athletic genius ensures that it remains thrillingly present. Santiago’s art is impressively mutable and subtle, with the early scenes in Carolina in particular and the off-field action in general drawn with a clean, evocative realism and the baseball action shading towards the comics-y abstract. The sound of cleats on basepaths and bats on ball are massively amplified. Players become granitic silhouettes or hulking, over-browed superheroes. Their freakish gifts, literalized and drawn, make them into fearsome mutants.
Of course 21 is cinematic in parts, but in its more montage-y moments — the Pirates 1960 World Series run, with Benny Benack’s novelty hit “Beat ‘Em Bucs” chasing the team from cell to cell, and with the Mantle/Maris Yankees looming Legion of Doom-ishly ahead — it can be both stranger and more gripping than film. From a storytelling perspective, the problem with brilliant athletes, as David Foster Wallace noted in his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” and as anyone who has ever watched a post-game interview knows, is that their physical genius is often the only truly interesting thing about them. Some are broken and childish (à la Mantle) or gnarled with ambition (Michael Jordan heads a long list here) or simply rotten (Ty Cobb, another long list). Clemente the man, by most accounts, was as uncomplicated and good as the one Santiago portrays in 21. But — like Mantle or Jordan or Cobb — he was also unpredictable and incandescent in his fast-twitch athletic brilliance.
Santiago manages to be faithful to both those truths, and the electricity with which he brings Clemente’s on-field genius to life carries 21, making it a fitting and vital tribute. Memory and mythos and the sports section’s casual hagiography have a way of turning athletes into something simultaneously great and small. Mostly, though, it just makes them vague: abstract enough to fit into a tacky subway ad, unreal enough to become convincing statues. 21 works best, as a comic and as a history, when Santiago dedicates himself to evoking the thrill of real, live athletic greatness. In those moments, his flawed, sometimes simplistic book becomes beautiful: when he puts the inert, immortal Clemente enshrined in Cooperstown back in a thrumming, hyped-up ballpark and lets the legend run around a bit and get some dirt on his uniform.