Richard Rossi’s “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories (2013),” tells the life story of the greatest right fielder of all time, Roberto Clemente, who played his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I grew up in Pittsburgh and I remember meeting Clemente when I was a kid. A bank in Pittsburgh held a promotion that said anyone who opened a savings account for $50 on a certain day could meet Clemente and 2 other Pirates (Roy Face and Bill Mazeroski). I didn’t have $50 for a savings account, but I stood in line anyway and I got to meet my idol. Clemente shook my hand and gave me warmest regards, and I remember that day fondly.
The movie features Jamie Nieto as Roberto Clemente and Marilinda Rivera plays his wife, Vera. We don’t get a straight narrative of Clemente’s life, but a pseudo documentary with vignettes emphasizing Clemente’s various traits. Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh in 1955 and he proved to be an enigma from the start. The Press in Pittsburgh made fun of his Puerto Rican accent at a time when the Pirates had only just integrated their team. Clemente, a very moral man who believed in the goodness of people, did not understand the attitudes he suffered in Florida during his first spring training with the Pirates (when he couldn’t eat at restaurants with the white players). Clemente suffered through neck and shoulder problems and he constantly made note of his discomfort, which exasperated Pirate managers and coaches. Slowly but surely, Clemente gained amazing popularity through is magical talents and loving spirit.
Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories gets bogged down by its extremely low budget, but Nieto and Rivera rise about the constraints to deliver capable performances. It must have been extremely difficult to find an actor capable of playing such a unique person such as Clemente. I remember the gloom around Pittsburgh when the news came out on New Year’s Day 1973 that Clemente’s plane went down off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even this many years later, the story of Clemente seems strangely incomplete because they never found his body. His spirit seems very much alive.
Rossi wanted to show Clemente’s spiritual way of looking at the world, and the way he seemed to predict his own death. Before taking off in the ill-fated plane, Clemente told others to stay home and enjoy New Year’s Eve, 1972. The director got heavy-handed in probably the worst scene in the movie — when Clemente has a long spiritual talk with a nun in a chapel. There’s not a lot of baseball action in the film, probably because Rossi chooses to concentrate on Clemente the man. The film not only covers Clemente’s life but manages to be moving as well.