Review by Win Wiacek
Roberto Clemente Walker is barely known outside baseball-loving nations, but within those countries the Puerto Rican is a renowned name both for his prodigious sporting talent and for his compassionate nature. Wilfred Santiago’s innovative and imaginative biography is a passionate and evocative account of the life of a groundbreaking star, quietly philanthropic humanitarian and culture-changing champion of ethnic equality.
Known professionally as Roberto Clemente, he grew up as one of seven kids in a devoutly Catholic family. Baseball and, latterly, his wife Vera and three children were his entire life. He played for a Puerto Rican team until head-hunted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. At that time racial restrictions were dominant in the American game, so it was only in the Canadian League for farm team the Montreal Royals that he actually played against white people.
In 1954 Clemente was finally introduced into the American game after signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, beginning a working relationship that lasted until his tragic death in a plane crash in December 1972.
During those tempestuous 18 years Clemente broke down many social barriers and became a sporting legend. He was the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter, the first Latino to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and winner of a dozen Gold Glove fielding awards. An all-round player, he scored 3000 hits and achieved many other notable career highlights.
Additionally, his background prompted his passionate work for humanitarian causes in Latin America, believing every child should have free and open access to sports. He died delivering earthquake relief to Nicaragua after the devastating tremor of December 23rd 1972. His body was never recovered.
Clemente was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 as the first Hispanic player to receive the honour – and the only contemporary player ever to have the five year waiting period waived. He is a national icon in Puerto Rico and one of the leading figures in the movement to desegregate American sports.
Rather than a dry accounting of his life, Santiago’s tale skips forward and back, illustrated in a studied and fiercely expressionistic melange of styles sketching in tone and mood, superbly synthesising the life of a true frontrunner and a very human hero.
With its message of success and glory in the face of poverty and discrimination “21” (available in hardback, softcover and digital formats) is potently reminiscent of James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing, but its entrancing, vibrant visual style is uniquely flavoured with the heat of the tropics and the pride of the people Clemente loved.
Lusciously realised in sumptuous earth-tones and powerfully redolent of the spirit of Unjust Times A-Changin’, this is a fabulous book for every fan of the medium and not simply lads and sports-fans.