Last night David Maraniss spoke in Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio mostly so he could promote his latest book, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero (Simon & Schuster). But the author frequently strayed from his official business at the Wisconsin Book Festival in order to talk about his other books, to reminisce about his boyhood in Madison, and to muse on the currant occupant of the White House.
"What would the world be like if he were still in baseball?" Maraniss wondered about George W. Bush, who once owned the Texas Rangers.
A local boy made good, Maraniss attended Madison West High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison before he joined the Washington Post, where his writing about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign earned a Pulitzer Prize. He has authored biographies of Clinton and Vince Lombardi, and his book They Marched Into Sunlight chronicled unpleasant events of October 1968 as they unfolded on the UW campus (riots, mayhem) and in a jungle in Vietnam (warfare, mayhem).
His book about Roberto Clemente is, he said, the closest to his heart. He recalled enraptured moments when, as a boy, he watched the 1961 World Series appearance by the celebrated Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, and he said Clemente brought to baseball a grace that transcended mere sport. "If you saw him play, it was something you never forgot," said Maraniss. "It was like listening to Mozart, or jazz." A native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente was one the first Latin American baseball stars in a league that is now about one-third Latino.
On the podium, Maraniss began to speak more softly as he recounted the circumstances of December 31, 1972, when Clemente, age 38, died in the crash of a plane delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Then Maraniss showed video of a tribute to Clemente at last July's All-Star Game, in Pittsburgh. At that event, Maraniss read from his book as a jazz band played behind him.
Maraniss began his presentation by noting that he is no stranger to Madison book events, and he marveled that he still can draw a crowd here. "Familiarity breeds familiarity," he said, to appreciative laughter.