on Wilfred Santiago’s life of Roberto Clemente.
Roberto Clemente Topps™ Baseball Card 1971
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente
Fantagraphics, 2011. 200 pp.
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.
Long, very thoughtful review of Wilfred Santiago’s 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente.
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