“21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente


By Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-892-3

I’m not a big fan of American Sports, favouring the ease and simplicity of our own gentle pastimes such as Rugby and, of course, Cricket, but I am a complete sucker for history and particularly graphic biographies – especially when they are as innovative and imaginative as this superbly passionate and evocative account of the life of a groundbreaking sports star, quietly philanthropic humanitarian and culture-changing champion of ethnic equality.

Roberto Clemente Walker was born in Puerto Rico on August 18th 1934, one of seven kids in a devoutly Catholic family. Baseball and, latterly, his wife Vera and three kids were his entire life. He played for a Puerto Rican team until the Brooklyn Dodgers head-hunted him.

At that time racial restrictions were dominant in the American game so he actually only played against white people in the Canadian League for the Montreal Royals. In 1954 he finally got into the American game when he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates – a working relationship that lasted until his tragic death in a plane crash in December 1972.

During those tempestuous 18 years Clemente broke down many social barriers and became a sporting legend: the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter, the first Latino to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and winner of a dozen Gold Glove Awards. An all round player, he scored 3000 hits and achieved many other notable career highlights.

He worked passionately for humanitarian causes in Latin America, believed every child should have free and open access to sports and died delivering earthquake relief to Nicaragua after the devastating tremor of December 23rd 1972.

He body was never recovered and he was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, again the first Hispanic to receive the honour and the only contemporary player ever to have the five year waiting period waived.

He is a national icon in Puerto Rico and one of the leading figures in the movement to desegregate American sports

Rather than a dry accounting of his life, author Wilfred Santiago’s tale skips forward and back, illustrated in a studied and fiercely expressionistic melange of styles which sketch in tone and mood, and feel the life of a true frontrunner and a very human hero.

With its message of success and glory in the face of poverty and discrimination “21” is delightfully reminiscent of James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing but its entrancing, vibrant visual style is uniquely flavoured with the heat of the tropics and the pride of the people Clemente loved.

Lusciously realised in sumptuous earth-tones and powerfully redolent of the spirit of Unjust Times A-Changin’, this is a fabulous book for every fan of the medium and not simply lads and sports-fans…

Art and text © 2011Wilfred Santiago. All rights reserved.

One thought on ““21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente

  1. Roberto Clemente will always be my idol. I am also an admirer of all things British, so I found your review to be not only well thought and well written but also very satisfying if that’s possible. Thank you.

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