Exhaustive hunt for Clemente's house

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Did Roberto Clemente live here?

That was our question when we got off our bicycles on a quiet street in Sugar Top after a long, grueling Monday evening ride that began at the Clemente statue outside PNC Park.

Before I get to the answer provided by the kind owner of the Iowa Street home, you might ask why we bothered. What is it about Clemente that compels the men who were boys when he played to reach back for those times?

I'd seen this item in the calendar of events for BikeFest, a 12-day celebration of the pedaling culture:

"In Search of Roberto Clemente's House.

"The ride will attempt to find where Roberto Clemente lived. The ride will last until we find his house or give up."

I rode up to the statue around 5 p.m. Monday to find a lone man sitting somewhat glumly beneath the bronze statue of Roberto. That was Nick Thompson, who cheered up when he saw he wouldn't need to cycle alone.

Mr. Thompson, 45, was wearing a Clemente T-shirt and holding his biography, "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero,'' by David Maraniss. All Mr. Thompson knew about the house could be found on page 82 of the book, but he figured that was enough to get us there.

So after Ken Kaszak cycled up, we rode over the Clemente Bridge and snaked our way through Downtown traffic to the Jail Trail that would get us to Oakland. As we rode, Mr. Kaszak and I traded baseball trivia questions.

Mr. Thompson isn't much of a baseball fan but his memory of Clemente is closely tied to one of his late father, Dr. Douglass Thompson, taking him to Forbes Field in the late 1960s. Thompson was around 6 when they sat in the right-field seats so they could hone in on Clemente, and at one point his father stuck a cigar in his son's mouth for reasons now obscure.

"I can't stand cigars to this day,'' Mr. Thompson said.

But he loves the memory and Clemente. It's no accident that we three riders were all boys when he was at the height of his powers. Playing a game often reduced to statistics, Clemente transcended them.

"He's art. He's not a number,'' Mr. Maraniss, his biographer, told me when I called him later at his home in Madison, Wis.

From the time Mr. Maraniss was 10, Clemente was his favorite player. He can remember every detail, the way Clemente rolled his neck, the way he looked in the old Pirates uniform with the cutoff jersey and the black sleeves.

"I just thought he was the coolest thing I'd ever seen,'' Mr. Maraniss said.

Clemente had nothing to do with bicycles, as far as I know, but it seemed right to do something physical to get to his house. Still, I was a bit out of my league that evening. I bike to work because I don't want to pay to park. I was fine on the flats of the Jail Trail, but after we left it and rode up out of Panther Hollow, I was puffing like a freight train.

We weren't long on the Centre Avenue hill headed west before I began walking my bike. I got off again on the red brick road that is Ewart Drive, but by then we were hearing from some locals that we were in the right place.

There's a reason the various names of this neighborhood are the Upper Hill and Schenley Heights and Sugar Top. It's a good-looking neighborhood of trim lawns, but it's a climb. When we went to the door of the single-story brick house we thought it might be, a woman answered. We told her why we were there.

How would you react to three sweaty strangers on your doorstep at twilight? Judy Durrah was gracious. She told us that, yes, Roberto Clemente had lived there. Her father, Stanley Garland, had rented him the room. Her parents and the young athlete became very close. They visited the Clemente home in Puerto Rico and Roberto's mother stayed at the house when she came to Pittsburgh.

It's a sweet story and Mr. Maraniss will tell more of how a young Latino athlete became a Pittsburgh icon, as much for the man he was off the field as the player on it, when he speaks at the Heinz History Center at 1:30 p.m. on Monday.

I think I may drive there.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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