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WBGO Film Critic Harlan Jacobson gets us ready for the MLB season with a review of the new doc 'Clemente'

Roberto Clemente
Roberto Clemente

DD: When baseball returns this weekend, whichever team you look forward to seeing take the field, whatever players you hope make it through the season in one piece, whether it’s Judge and Soto or Alonso and whoever else they have over there, there’s also good reason to look back. Roberto Clemente, the legendary right fielder of the 1960s Pittsburgh Pirates, is the focus of a new documentary that captures a baseball star who anyone in Pittsburgh could tell you was larger than baseball. Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, reports from the recent SXSW film festival in Austin.

HJ: Bob Costas was speaking for me, when in the first inning of David Altrogge’s new documentary, Clemente, he recalls the 1960 World Series, between the NY Yankees—you’ve heard of them ,everybody’s heard of them, you can be hiking in Nepal and there will be a guy sitting outside a yurt selling yak sox wearing a baseball hat with the interlocking NY—and the Pittsburgh Pirates, a minor market, major league team that, against the NY Yankees, nobody took seriously. Not the guy in the yurt, and certainly nobody in NY.

Costas says he was 8 in 1960, baseball is all that he was about, and that with three Yankee blowouts of the Pirates, 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0, it wasn’t looking good for the Pirates. That series, Costas said, is part of his 8-year-old pain. He was living in Commack, Long Island, which occupies some dark foggy part of my brain, like Commackistan. Having just moved from Cincinnati to Toledo in 1960, like Costas the only thing I cared about was baseball and maybe frozen Snickers, and I was for Pittsburgh, as was the rest of boykind. Unlike people in Commack, I knew the Pirates were to the right of the Cleveland Indians, and northeast of my Reds, whom the Yankees humiliated a year later in ‘61 in a five-game series.

Any anti-Yankee fan on the planet can tell you about the 1960 World Series. The pirates hung in there winning three close games 6-2, 3-2, 5-2, and eked out a 7th Game, though the run total to that point had been Yankees 46, Pirates, 19. I played hooky to watch Game 7 at home --alone—my parents thought I was receiving a quality education at Horace Mann Elementary, which never happened any other day, so I saw no reason to miss Game 7. Best thing I ever did. Pirate 2nd baseman Bill Mazeroski – I would say spoiler alert here, but it’s been 64 years -- hit a bottom of the ninth walk-off homer to win the game 10-9 and the series. I ricocheted off the walls of my small suburban ranch house: there was a God, He was a National Leaguer, etc. Bobby Richardson of the Yankees, seemingly inexplicable, was named Series MVP, the only time in MLB history a player from the losing team has ever been so selected.

What the documentary by Altrogge, a native of Indiana, Pa, home of Jimmy Stewart, doesn’t tell you is that sportswriter votes had to be in by the close of the 8th inning, when the Yankees were down 9-7 but rallied for two in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 9-9. What the doc does tell you is that 26-year-old Roberto Clemente, a native Puerto Rican and the Pirates right fielder, convinced his teammates in the dugout, in the clubhouse and on the field that they could win by one run here, three runs there, and finally four big runs that rocked baseball forever. Altrogge then relates how teammate Dick Groat, the Pirates shortstop, was named National League MVP, while Clemente, whose stats were similar to Groat’s, finished eighth in sportswriter voting. Clemente was stung. He was wounded He was furious.

A piece of Roberto Clemente's game-used jersey from the Highland Mint Collection.
Courtesy of Doug Doyle's memorabilia collection
A piece of Roberto Clemente's game-used jersey from the Highland Mint Collection.

The doc, put together with the participation of the Clemente family, his sons, Roberto Jr and Luis Roberto, Clemente’s late wife Vera, who died in 2019 at 78, and Austin-based film director Richard Linklater (whose career includes Dazed and Confused, the Before Trilogy, and Boyhood), paints a portrait of a baseball star, a regular guy, a consummate humanitarian, and a complex competitor. He signs an autograph for a girl, misses the team bus, and jumps in the girl’s family car to get to the airport. And the families become lifelong friends. Bob Gibson of the Cardinals brushes him back, strikes him out and insults him, and the next time up, Clemente lines a ball off Gibson’s leg, breaking it. Driving down a Pittsburgh Street, Clemente sees a kid with a glove in front of his house, stops the car, plays catch with the kid and stays for dinner. When he went to the hospitals to see kids, he kept it to himself.

Linklater also contributed the narrative style Altrogge uses of line figure, seemingly hand painted, pastel animated sequences he’s used in his own films to knit together the thrilling archival baseball footage and all the people who want to talk about Clemente: Michael “Batman” Keaton--a McKees Rocks kid, Puerto Rican super nova Rita Moreno, current Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, 60’s Pirates righthander Steve Blass, journalist David Maraniss, author of a Clemente biography, and 70s Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillén, whom Clemente mentored through his early years. Sanguillén was memorably a kid on the 1971 minority heavyweight team of Willie Stargell, Clemente and Al Oliver that took down the favored Baltimore Orioles of Boog Powell, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally in the World series—the 4th game of which was the first night game in Series’ history. In the post series TV interview, when he was named Series MVP, Clemente speaks first to his parents in Spanish. Of that moment, Orlando Cepeda, also Puerto Rican and first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, says of Clemente, “He was our Jackie Robinson.”

A year later after an earthquake rocked Managua, Nicaragua, Clemente orchestrated aid that he subsequently discovered was stolen by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Clemente found a plane, filled it with more aid to take to Nicaragua himself on New Year’s Eve 1972. Altrogge’s film documents the plane as a deathship, overloaded, old, badly maintained and engineered, flown by an amateur pilot. I don’t think I knew that. Clemente had told his wife, Vera, that he would die young. His sons had a premonition this mission was bad business.

Everyone in Pittsburgh, including my wife, then a Pittsburgh kid, knows where they were when they heard that Roberto Clemente died at 38, when his plane dropped out of the sky.

Now I’m a Yankee fan… I’m in New York 50 years. But I have tickets this season for both when the Reds and the Pirates come to town to play the Yankees. I’m still mad about ‘61, and Altrogge’s Clemente took me back to the day I played hooky to see Game 7. Cinetic Media was looking for a buyer at SXSW. I’m sure they found one for you to see Clemente soon.

I'm Harlan Jacobson and Let's Play Ball!!

(The opening music "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is courtesy of Curtis Stigers)

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.