Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Great Ones*

This post is not aboout baseball. Okay, not entirely about baseball. Even if you're not a sports fan, please read.

I believe I have mentioned that one of the heroes of my childhood was Roberto Clemente, the right fielder for my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. My ex-sister-in-law gave me his biography for a birthday present this past summer, which gave me a book to read during jury duty.

Reading the book made me marvel again at the way the man played baseball. It's difficult to realize how special a player he was. There were so many impressive things about him:
  • The way he held his bat: straight up, hands close to his chest, the tip of that big piece of lumber so still that my dad said you could put a glass of water up there and it wouldn't move until he swung the bat. "Then he'll be halfway to first base before it hits the ground," he'd say.
  • The way he ran. "Like he was chased by demons," was the way one sportswriter put it. And it really did look that way. For all his grace in so many other areas, when he was rounding the bases, he literally looked like he was about to run out of his own skin. And he was fast. Only 26 players in the history of Major League Baseball hit more triples than him.
  • The way he stopped. In baseball, if you overrun second or third base, you can be tagged 'out,' but you can run past first base without penalty.** Most runners, especially if they're trying to beat out an infield single, will run the ninety feet so fast that they need an additional ninety to slow down. Not Clemente. He could go from full speed to a dead stop in two steps. Try that sometime. Afterwards, crawl back to pick up your ankles.
  • The way he fielded. His speed gave him incredible range in right field. His glove really was the place where doubles went to die*** And his arm was legendary. He could--and did--regularly throw out runners at home from deep right field. On the fly. We're talking about throws of 360 feet (112 metres).
  • His consistency. In September of 1972, Major League Baseball had been around for more than a century. In that time, only ten players had ever gotten three thousand hits in their career. He was the eleventh. I saw the game on TV--we had cable (even back then), and WOR carried the Mets games. On the second pitch of his second at-bat against Jon Matlak, he smoked a fastball into the right-center gap for a double. It was the final regular-season hit of his career.
  • His humanitarianism. Roberto Clemente worked tirelessly to help others. In late December of 1972, a huge earthquake destroyed much of Nicaragua. Clemente immediately began a drive to collect food, clothing, medicine, and whatever else was needed to aid the victims of the temblor. When word got back to him that most of the aid from him, as well as other agencies, was being held up by the Somozan government, he decided to fly there from his home in Puerto Rico to see what he could do. His chartered aircraft crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff on December 31, 1972.
This post is not about baseball. It's about women.


Yup. Specifically it's about women and their place in the board room.

Late last week, Åsa, a thirty-something female Chief Financial Officer of a Stockholm-based multinational corporation, wrote in her blog about an incident that made her angry and uncomfortable in her own board room. These feelings were brought on by a relatively insensitive line of conversation taken by the rest of the people in the room--all men.

What's this have to do with Roberto Clemente?

Reading his biography also opened my eyes to some things about Clemente that I was not aware of. He started his Major League career in 1955. This was eight years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Baseball was integrated on the field, but there were still issues. There was little of the open hostility that greeted Robinson, Larry Doby, Curt Roberts (first black Pirates player) and others. But there were still race-related issues. In Florida, during spring training, the team hotels would not accept the teams black players. So, while the whites were lying by the pool and sleeping in air-conditioned rooms, the black players were taken in by the families of the groundskeepers and their neighbors, sometimes sleeping in shacks. This went on for the Pirates until sometime in the mid-1960's, nearly a decade into Clemente's career.

In addition to being black, he was from Puerto Rico, and spoke English with a thick accent. The writers of the day saw nothing wrong with writing his quotes to accentuate it. If he talked about slugger Bob Skinner, it was written thusly: We have the best heeter in the clutch, none better than Bob Skeener. I tell him they bring in southpaw lefty, and that they lefty mean him trouble. Skeener merely wave hand, then step in and hit line drive for extra bases.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's accent is just as thick as Clemente's was, but here's how his quotes are written: "Look at the year last year, when Podsednik was leading off, what kind of job he was doing," Guillen said of Podsednik, who hit .290 with 59 steals in '05. "Now he's not doing his job."

My point is this: women like Åsa are in the same position today in the boardroom that players like Clemente were in baseball in the 1960's. Even though the barriers are being broken, and it has been well established that competence or incompetence knows no sexual boundaries, they still have to put up with a lot of shit.

It's not fair, it's not right, but it is so.

For now.

In time things change. They have to. Talent will reveal itself, and the smartest organizations will adapt--partly without notice--to the people inside it.

Roberto Clemente was a proud man, yet he ws forced to endure many indignities, merely for the color of his skin and the tone of his voice. And whenever he would complain (and he did--a lot), he would be branded as a 'Crazy Puerto Rican,' and dismissed. But he did put up with it, and dealt with it with quiet dignity and an iron will to succeed. It's been said before, but he truly needed to be better than everyone else just to be treated as an equal.

For a while, at least.

Almost one year to the day before Clemente's three thousandth hit, there was another milestone. In a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, here was the Pirate's lineup:
  • Al Oliver, 1b
  • Rennie Stennett, 2b
  • Jackie Hernandez, ss
  • Dave Cash, 3b
  • Roberto Clemente, rf
  • Gene Clines, cf
  • Willie Stargell, rf
  • Manny Sanguillen, c
  • Dock Ellis, p
Nearly twenty-four seasons**** from when Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Dodgers, Major League Baseball had its first all-black/hispanic lineup.

And no one noticed.**** And they shouldn't have.

That year, the Pirates won the World Series.

Things change. Sometimes for the better.

Shit happens, and then it doesn't.


*I tried to get the stupid YouTube video to play in my stupid blog, but my stupid computer wouldn't let it. Stupid stupid. So, since it didn't work, I entreat you to view the video by clicking the link.
**This is for my readers from other, less baseball-savvy parts of the world. You know who you are.
***I know, I know. That was originally written about Pie Traynor, but I never saw him play, OK?
****Does that sound like a long time? Consider this: the Mets' Julio Franco is completing his twenty-third season this year. Yes, his is an exceptionally long career, but still--when you hit your forties, a quarter-century doesn't seem as long a time as it once did.
*****Well, some people noticed. I noticed. I was nuts about that team. They also played the first night game in World Series history that year. So not everything was good.


Blogger cadbury_vw said...

the barriers faced and overcome are often the defining moments of our lives

mrs_C was the first female to hold a high-level technical job at a power plant she worked at.

her and about 450 guys

they were miserable son-of-bitches

sexist remarks, pulling out penthouse when she walked in the room, sabatoge of her work, the whole gamut

it was everything i could do to not go pound them out (yes, all of them)

she told me to back off and persevered.

i always admired the strength and determination she had to prove herself by just doing her job

it's not fair that such things should happen, but the people who break the ground are to be admired

6:04 PM  
Blogger Guy Wonders said...

I realize this post isn't just about baseball, but there is lots of good baseball stuff in it, nonetheless. Al Oliver's name rang an immediate bell, and I vaguely remembered that he played briefly for the Toronto Blue Jays (and for a longer period, as I was reminded later, for the Montreal Expos)

To refresh my memory, I decided to look him up. That's when I discovered his personal website. I'll bet you don't know who Al's biggest fan is. I certainly didn't.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

Cad: That's terrible. It reminds me of the abuse I heard about with women coal miners and firefighters.

Guy: I was a big fan of 'Scoop'when he was with the Pirates, and was sad to see him get traded.

I wonder if Donald knows he's Al's biggest fan.

I also wonder what this 'collusion' that forced him out of the game was all about. It hints at it on the website, but there's nothing concrete. Do you remember anything about it?


10:47 PM  
Blogger mal said...

BP- interesting and insightful.

Am I correct your conclusion is that by continuing to push against the issue, by small increments, it will eventually be conquered?

Cad- she was right. If you can endure it, one way to win respect is to NEVER let the bastards think they can get to you. I knew a rig supervisor who had to put up with that garbage when she first started as a roustabout. She hung in and eventually had a lot respect BEFORE she was promoted

8:09 PM  
Blogger Guy Wonders said...

A brief search reveals that Al was one of seven major league players in 1985 who won a collusion case against team owners. I assume it had something to do with salaries.

From what I can gather, he was given immediate free agent status. Unfortunately, his career seemed to be over, anyway. . . .

People like Robert Clemente seem akin, in many ways, to great scientists and artists. They're born with something special and when it's nurtured, they rise above everyone else in their field (pun accidental).

Tiger Woods would probably be a good example of this. . . .

10:00 PM  
Blogger Åsa said...

Balloon Pirate! I’m honored to be mentioned on your blog!

You are right that there are so many areas in this world where there has been land-winnings and also areas where there is still a long way before we get to the equal rights. We are taking one step at the time.

It’s scary to think that the way Clemente and other black players where treated so badly was not that long ago. My parents where even born at that time! I’m hoping that by the time my nieces are grown up, they will think that sexist remarks in the office environment is unheard of and appalling that it happened when their auntie was young.

Good post!

4:14 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I don't envy pioneers, but I'm grateful for them.

2:11 PM  

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