By David Maraniss
From Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, 2006
There was something about Clemente that surpassed statistics, then and always. Some baseball mavens love the sport precisely because of its numbers. They can take the mathematics of a box score and of a year’s worth of statistics and calculate the case for players they consider underrated or overrated and declare who has the most real value to a team. To some skilled practitioners of this science, Clemente comes out very good but not the greatest; he walks too seldom, has too few home runs, steals too few bases. Their perspective is legitimate, but to people who appreciate Clemente this is like chemists trying to explain Van Gogh by analyzing the ingredients of his paint. Clemente was art, not science. Every time he strolled slowly to the batter’s box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one’s eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility.
“The rest of us were just players,” Steve Blass would say. “Clemente was a prince.”
Clemente arrived at Pirates camp to train for the 1961 season on March 2, a day late. He and Tite Arroyo had been delayed entry from Puerto Rico to Florida until tests came back proving they did not have the bubonic plague, a few cases of which had broken out in Venezuela during the tournament.
On the day he reached Fort Myers, free from the plague, a story ran on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: Negros Say Conditions in U.S. Explain Nationalist’s Militancy. One of the key figures quoted in the story was Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, who in the Times account was referred to as Minister Malcolm. Interviewed at a Muslim-run restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Malcolm X said the only answer to America’s racial dilemma was for blacks to segregate themselves, by their own choice, with their own land and financial reparations due them from centuries of slavery. He dismissed the tactics of the civil rights movement as humiliating, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins that were taking place throughout the South. “To beg a white man to let you into his restaurant feeds his ego,” Minister Malcolm told the newspaper.
This was fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregated schools, five years after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in Montgomery, four years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in the capital of Arkansas, one year after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro. Year by year, the issue of race was becoming more urgent. The momentum was on the side of change, but the questions were how and how fast. In baseball, where once there had been no black ballplayers, now there were a hundred competing for major league jobs, and along with numbers came enormous talent, with ten past and future most valuable players among them. Yet every black player who reported to training camp in Florida that spring of 1961 still had to confront Jim Crow segregation. Even if their private emotions were sympathetic to Malcolm X’s rage at having to beg a white man to let you into his restaurant, the issue in baseball was necessarily shaped by its own history. Having moved away from the professional Negro Leagues and busted through the twentieth century’s racial barrier, black players did not view voluntary resegregation as an option, and separate and unequal off the field was no longer tolerable.
Wendell Smith, the influential black sportswriter who still had a column in the weekly Pittsburgh Courier but wrote daily now for the white-owned newspaper Chicago’s American, began a concerted campaign against training camp segregation that year. On January 23, a month before the spring camps opened, Smith wrote a seminal article that appeared on the top of the front page of Chicago’s American headlined Negro Ball Players Want Rights in South. “Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the South,” Smith wrote. “The Negro player who is accepted as a first-class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second-class citizen in spring training.” Smith added that leading black players were “moving cautiously and were anxious to avert becoming engulfed in fiery debate over civil rights,” but nonetheless were preparing to meet with club owners and league executives to talk about the problem and make it a front-burner issue for the players association.
In a drumbeat of stories for Chicago’s American and columns for the Courier, Smith documented the life of black players in Florida. While his scope was national and his campaign was for all of baseball, he often focused on the travails of black players on Chicago’s American League team, the White Sox, who trained in Sarasota. Those players included Minnie Minoso, Al Smith, and Juan Pizarro, Clemente’s friend and sometimes teammate in Puerto Rico, who had been traded from the Braves. “If you are Minoso, Smith or Pizarro … you are a man of great pride and perseverance.… Otherwise you would not be where you are today, training with a major league team in Sarasota, Fla.,” Smith wrote in a Courier column. “Yet despite all your achievements and fame, the vicious system of racial segregation in Florida’s hick towns condemns you to a life of humiliation and ostracism.” Among the indignities, he wrote:
You cannot live with your teammates.
You cannot eat the type of food that your athletic body requires.
You cannot get a cab in the mornings to take you to the ball park, unless it happens to be Negro-driven.
You cannot enter the hotel in which your manager lives without first receiving special permission.
You cannot go to a movie or night club in the heart of town, nor enjoy any of the other normal recreational facilities your white teammates enjoy so matter of factly.
You cannot bring your wife and children to the town where you are training because accommodations are not available where you are imprisoned.
You cannot, even if there are facilities, take them to the town’s sprawling beaches or parks, unless, of course, they are designated as “Negro.”
You cannot do anything that you would normally do in any of the major league cities where you make your living during the summer.
You are quartered in a neighborhood that ordinarily you would be ashamed to be seen in.
You are horribly embarrassed each day when the bus returning the players from the ball park stops on “this side of the railroad tracks” and deposits you in “Colored Town,” and then proceeds on to the plush hotel where your white teammates live in splendor and luxury.
You suffered a bruised leg sliding into second base, but you cannot receive immediate treatment from the club trainer because he is living in the “white” hotel. If he can get away during the night and come to your segregated quarters, he will, of course; but for obvious reasons, he prefers to wait until daylight.
Your wife cannot call you in case of emergency from your home because the place where you are incarcerated does not have phone facilities available at all times.
That is what it is like to be a Negro big leaguer in Florida during spring training… And the story has been only half told.
The spring training headquarters for the White Sox was the Sarasota Terrace Hotel, which banned journalist Smith and the black players. When Smith pressed the owner, a building contractor named James Ewell, to explain his policy, Ewell said he was following the social practices of the Sarasota community. Also, he claimed that if he opened his establishment to blacks he would lose contracting work: “My clients throughout Florida and other sections of the South would reject my business, I believe.” The White Sox situation was made more interesting by the fact that the team’s president, Bill Veeck, had been in the forefront of integrating baseball and was not oblivious to the plight of his black players. Veeck had found another place for them, the DeSoto Motel, which was run by Edward Wachtel and his wife, Lillian, a white Jewish couple from New York, who had retired to Florida and wanted in their own “quiet” way to break the segregation policies of their new home. For this gesture, the Wachtels received anonymous bomb threats, hate mail, and late-night telephone calls warning that crosses would be burned on their lawn. Their modest green-and-white one-story motel was located in a white neighborhood on Route 301 a mile or so from the rest of the team. The DeSoto was clean but modest, with far fewer services than the Sarasota Terrace. The neon sign out front boasted Heated * Air Conditioned * Overnites * Efficiences.
Veeck had tried to balance the conditions by hiring a cook, maid service, and transportation to and from the ball park. On the road, he had made the bold stand of pulling the White Sox from a hotel in Miami because it rejected his black players. Still, it wasn’t until Wendell Smith began his incessant campaign that the White Sox took the final step of leasing their own hotel in Sarasota so the entire team could stay together.
Down at the Pirates training camp in Fort Myers, where conditions were worse, Courier sports editor Bill Nunn Jr., a journalistic disciple of Smith, was determined to lend his voice to the integration campaign. From his first day in town, Nunn began interviewing players and club executives for a full-page story. There had been few advances since 1955, the first Pirates camp in Fort Myers, when young Clemente was sent off to a rooming house in the Dunbar Heights section of town where he had to eat and sleep apart from his teammates. Including top minor leaguers, there were now fifteen black players in the Pirates camp, led by Clemente and Gene Baker, a veteran infielder. In interviews with Nunn, both expressed their disgust. “We live in a world apart down here,” Baker told Nunn. “We don’t like it and we’ve voiced our objections. We only hope we get action.” At the ball park during the day, Baker said, he enjoyed talking to teammates Don Hoak and Gino Cimoli about their shared passion, greyhound racing. But when they went to the dog track at night, Baker had to go through the entrance marked “Colored” and sit apart from them.
Clemente was described as “bitter” about the situation. Here he was, a star player on the world champions of baseball, a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps, still treated like a second-class citizen. “There is nothing for us to do down here,” he told Nunn. “We go to the ball park, play cards, and watch television. In a way it’s like being in prison. Everybody else on the team has fun during spring training. They swim, play golf, and go to the beaches. The only thing we can do is put in time until we head North. It’s no fun.”
Later, when asked to list his heroes, Clemente would place Martin Luther King Jr. at the top of the list. He supported integration, the norm in Puerto Rico, and believed in King’s philosophy of nonviolence. Yet in some ways his sensibility brought him closer to Malcolm X. He detested any response to Jim Crow segregation that made him seem to beg. In his early years with the Pirates, whenever the team stopped at a roadside restaurant on the way to or from a spring training away game, the black players would remain on the bus, waiting for white teammates to bring out food for them. Clemente put a stop to it by telling his black teammates that anyone who begged for food would have to fight him to get it. As he recalled the scene later, he went to Joe L. Brown, the Pirates general manager, and said the situation was demeaning. “So I say to Joe Brown, ‘We won’t travel anymore with the bus. If we can’t eat where the white players eat I don’t want to go with the bus.’ So Joe Brown said, ‘Well, we’re going to get a station wagon for you fellows to travel in.’ And [now] we’re traveling in a station wagon.” That still left a long way to go to reach equality.
During the first week of exhibition games, Nunn interviewed Brown and asked him why he allowed the team to be divided by segregation. The general manager said that he had met with the Fort Myers town fathers, who told him local law prohibited the mingling of races in hotels or motels, but that he felt he was making progress in getting them to change their practices. “I talked to all of the city officials about this situation of separate quarters for our players this year. I didn’t go to these men to make demands,” Brown said. “I explained our problem to them and told them we wanted integration at all levels for our players. I was pleased with the reception I received. The city officials listened to my complaints and appeared receptive. They didn’t make any promises but I believe they are just as eager to have this problem solved as we are.” Integration would take time, Brown told Nunn. He considered it a step forward that city officials even agreed to talk about it. Brown was a Californian who had no use for segregation, but he also was a businessman who did not want to alienate the Fort Myers establishment. “Frankly, we have no real complaints against the city of Fort Myers,” he concluded. “We have been treated wonderfully since coming here. The facilities are good and I’ve heard no objections from the Negro members of our club on the segregation issue.”
That last comment reflected a common attitude among baseball executives, and many sportswriters, who were so lulled by their own comfortable situations and the lazy ease of their sport in springtime that it was difficult for them to see the reality. When the Fort Myers Boosters Club held a Pirates Welcome Luncheon at the Hideaway, the guest list included Brown and manager Danny Murtaugh, Pennsylvania Governor David Lawrence, Ford Frick, the baseball commissioner, Warren Giles, the president of the National League, and several heroes of the World Series, but not Clemente, who could not get into the building unless he worked as a waiter or dishwasher. That same day, at ten in the morning, a forty-three-minute highlight film of the World Series was shown at the Edison Theater downtown, and notices announced there was no charge and “the public is invited—men, women and children.” As long as they were white. When the Fort Myers Country Club sponsored its annual Pirates Golf Tourney, the News-Press listed the foursomes, comprised of players, coaches, businessmen, and sportswriters. Brown and Murtaugh played, along with Groat and Friend and Schofield and Stuart and twenty more members of the Pirates organization. The Pirates were described as acting “like boys let out of school.” When the golfing was done, they were all served “a bountiful buffet dinner.” Clemente and his black teammates were back in Dunbar Heights.
In the bonhomie of the occasion, no one noticed who wasn’t there. Ducky Schofield, the utility infielder, was perhaps typical of white Pirates who were not racist but also did not seem to take into account how social conditions might have deeper effects on black teammates. When asked later whether Clemente was disliked by some of the Pirates of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Schofield said: “I’m sure there were some who didn’t like him.… Maybe it was because he didn’t put forth a whole lot of energy as far as being one of the guys. I think he pretty much stuck to himself quite a bit. In those days, guys ran in groups. Guys would eat together, have a couple of beers. Not that he had to do it, but I never saw him do it.”
Exclusive events like the Fort Myers welcome luncheon and golf outing were held in spring-training towns throughout Florida. But unlike previous springs, this time they were loudly criticized. The most attention was drawn to St. Petersburg, which called itself the capital of the Grapefruit League as home to the Yankees and Cardinals. Both teams had been staying at segregated hotels, the Cardinals at the Vinoy Park and the Yankees at the Soreno, but under pressure from the local NAACP and black players, the system was finally being cracked. When Soreno’s management refused to change its policy, the Yankees picked up and moved across the state to Fort Lauderdale, and in the aftermath, St. Pete officials were so worried about losing baseball entirely that the Cardinals were finally allowed to house their entire team in the same hotel. Small victories of that sort were being won here and there, rivulets in the mighty stream of civil rights. On March 13, in Miami Beach, Floyd Patterson defended his heavyweight boxing crown in a title match with Ingemar Johansson, and along with Patterson’s victory the most newsworthy aspect of the fight was that, at the champ’s insistence, the color bar was lifted in the Convention Hall. “Negroes were spotted freely among the predominantly white crowd in all sections,” the New York Times reported, and “so far as could be noted, no incidents arose from the integrated set-up.” It was an off-day for the Pirates, and third-baseman Don Hoak, who had been a decent amateur boxer, covered the event for a Pittsburgh newspaper. Yet in Sarasota and other spring-training cities, black ballplayers wanting to watch Patterson were not allowed into the whites-only theaters.
Change was slow, and did not occur unprovoked. One of the pivotal events that spring came when the chamber of commerce held a Salute to Baseball at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. Bill White, the Cardinals first baseman, blasted the lily-white event as a symbol of baseball’s capitulation to Southern racism. His words echoed across the state and nation. “I think about this every minute of the day,” White told Joe Reichler of United Press International. “This thing keeps gnawing at my heart. When will we be made to feel human?”