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Taking their hits

Clemente The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero David Maraniss Simon & Schuster: 416 pp., $26 ---- Stepping Up The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights Alex Belth Persea Books: 224 pp., $22.95 ----- Black and Blue The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys, and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America Tom Adelman Little, Brown: 280 pp., $24.95

April 02, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer.

WHENEVER Puerto Rico's baseball team was on display during the recent World Baseball Classic, the ESPN announcers made time to pay tribute to the island's greatest player, Roberto Clemente, showing clips of his titanic throws from right field and hitting feats for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team he twice helped lead to the World Series during an 18-year career that abruptly ended when he died in a 1972 plane crash.

More than three decades after his death, Clemente is a much-celebrated figure, lauded as a humanitarian, an icon in Puerto Rico and an impressive entry in the record books. But he was not so honored in his own time. Difficult, quick to take offense, Clemente's fierce pride was viewed as peevish arrogance by the sportswriters of his day, who focused more on his pidgin English and frequent aches and pains than on his warmth and humanity. Even as late as 1971, baseball columnist Dick Young, then at the New York Daily News, would render Clemente phonetically, quoting him as saying, "Eef I have my good arm thee ball gets there a leetle quicker than he gets there."

These slights did not go unnoticed. When Clemente was playing winter ball in Nicaragua, a local sportswriter had the temerity to write that an obscure Cuban outfielder had made a throw "capable of making Clemente blush." The next day, the writer was summoned to the dugout for a verbal whipping. "I throw to get outs on third from the right-field corner in the huge Pirates stadium, and with Pete Rose sliding in," Clemente complained. "There is no comparison."

But as David Maraniss often stresses in his authoritative new biography, "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," available later this month , Clemente wasn't obsessed only with his image. Just days after berating the Nicaraguan writer, he summoned him again, this time to argue the case that Latin American ballplayers were discriminated against by the American press, which, not knowing the players' culture or language, seemed more eager to probe their flaws than hail their talents.

Every year, the opening of baseball season is marked by a deluge of new baseball books, many eminently forgettable. But the best of this year's new books make a persuasive case that for decades after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, African American and Latin American ballplayers were struggling against prejudice and bigotry, from inside and outside the sport. Accustomed to baseball's white, working-class ethos, the baseball establishment and sportswriters of the day were mystified by a new style born in the barrios and ghettos. They mistook a refusal to show emotion for indifference when it was actually a studied coping mechanism, no different than the inscrutable mask worn by black icons of the era, from Miles Davis and Sonny Liston to Jim Brown and Bill Russell.

As Alex Belth, author of "Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," puts it: "Being cool for a black man ... was a posture, a way of expressing his disgust and anger at what he had to put up with without becoming unhinged. Black athletes couldn't be brash or outspoken if they valued their lives."

In sports biographies of the past, writers too often compartmentalized baseball, casting it in an amber-hued nostalgia that made it seem as if the game was always played in elysian fields. These books are less sentimental. In "Black and Blue: The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys, and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America," Tom Adelman notes that on July 27, Baltimore Oriole slugger Frank Robinson hit his 30th home run on the way to leading his team to a World Series victory that fall. But far from dwelling on Robinson's heroics, Adelman describes what happened in Baltimore the following night. After the leader of a segregationist rally promised, "We're damn sure gonna kill all the [blacks]," several thousand white teenagers went on a rampage in the city's black neighborhoods, sparking an ugly street battle that was finally quelled by riot police.

Maraniss is the most polished writer here, having written widely praised biographies of Bill Clinton and the late Green Bay Packer Coach Vince Lombardi. But Adelman and Belth tell their stories with more verve and insight than he does, avoiding most of the cliches and conventional wisdom of traditional sports volumes. Eager to connect the events on the diamond with the rising tide of political activism, these books dismantle the wall between the insular world of baseball and the tumult of 1960s America.

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