Baseball Books Reviewed: "21": The Story of Roberto Clemente

"21": The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago. (Fantagraphics Books, unpaginated, $22.99). HB, 2011.

As one of the world’s most ardent Roberto Clemente fans, I feel fairly well-qualified to review Wilfred Santiago’s graphic novel, “21.” And I’ll admit that I wasn’t anticipating much in the way of new information about my hero. After all, I just counted 30 different Clemente biographies on my bookshelf, plus another couple dozen books and magazines with chapters and stories devoted to the Pittsburgh Pirate icon. And yes, I’ve read each and every one. More than once. Besides, what new information beyond that found in David Maraniss’ fabulous Clemente:The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero , a 2006 Casey Award finalist, could possibly be found in a glorified comic book? (And I own a few of those about Clemente, too!)

How wrong I was to underestimate the powerful storytelling medium of the emerging graphic novel platform, especially when masterfully rendered by an author and artist as remarkably talented as Santiago. I expected an exciting visual presentation, and was not disappointed, as Santiago’s heavy-lined, representational graphic style was, in turn whimsical, arresting, quirky, and most of all, emotional.

But I wasn’t prepared for the wonderfully passionate portrayal of the human side of Clemente’s legendary journey from Puerto Rico into baseball immortality. Santiago wisely eschews the on-field exploits and instead recounts the dramatic and poignant events of his personal life and their effects on his personality and career. Here I was, someone who’d likely read all there was to read about The Great One’s life story, yet I’d never remembered another author ever describing the impact of losing his baby sister in a fire as a child, or the heartbreak he must’ve felt when his brother Luis died just as his baseball career began so far away from home in the United States.

We learn how Clemente’s childhood nickname – Momen, short for momentito, or ‘just a sec’ – embodied not just a favorite phrase but the essence of a boy always distracted by baseball, always in a hurry to get to the future before it passed him by. Santiago explains the double prejudice of skin color and language that Latins had to endure with finesse, by revealing an ill-fated romance between Clemente and a white woman. Readers are treated to unconventional portraits of Clemente’s beloved homeland and adopted Steeltown home that capture the monumental differences that must’ve been so bewildering and intimidating.

Captivating, revealing, and dramatic, “21” accomplished through art, creative use of informed imagination, and pure passion, far more than I thought possible from a graphic novel. I believe I now have a more complete picture of Roberto Clemente, but not of his statistics, or even his style of play, or of his place in baseball history.

I have a truer sense of his heart.

Reviewed by: Mark W. Schraf (June 18, 2011)