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It’s Time Baseball Extended One More Honor to Roberto Clemente
- Updated: April 6, 2017
Every April 15 Major League Baseball honors Jackie Robinson, the player who broke its color barrier. Robinson is not only remembered as being a great player, but is also noted for his stance of pacifism as hatred and threats of violence swirled around him though his career. Teams and players pay their respects to Robinson on his day by donning his number, 42. However, he is also honored throughout the season. Robinson’s number was universally retired in April of 1997, the 50th anniversary of becoming the first black player in MLB history.
It was the right thing to do for more reasons than it makes sense to rationally list. The decision was one of the few made by Major League Baseball that received universal approval. Robinson’s struggles and triumphs are well known. If there is ever a Mt. Rushmore for civil rights heroes, he’s certainly on it.
There is, however, another player who in the eyes of many was just as impactful to baseball as Robinson as both a player and a humanitarian. It’s time for Major League Baseball to also acknowledge his legacy with the same reverence as Robinson’s. Although it was retired by the Pirates on this day in 1973, this should be the last season any Major League player wears Roberto Clemente’s number 21.
Twenty-one should belong to Clemente in the same way forty-two belongs to the great Jackie Robinson.
Clemente wasn’t the first black, Latin American player in baseball. He wasn’t even the first black Latin star. As early as 1951 Minnie Minoso was hitting .300 in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox. Clemente was, however, the first black Latin star to speak loudly about the discrimination that still existed for all black players, especially the ones who “talked funny.”
Clemente often claimed that he was treated like a “double nigger” because of both the color of his skin and his Spanish accent.
It takes a profound level of stupidity for a person, who can only speak one language, to question the intelligence of someone who’s trying to speak a second one, but Clemente dealt with it everyday from fans, his teammates, opponents, and the media.
On September 30, 1972, in his final regular season at bat, Clemente stroked a double off of Mets pitcher Jon Matlack to reach the 3000 hit milestone. He also hit 240 home runs, and held a .317 batting average. Clemente was still one of the finest defensive outfielders in baseball with a very strong throwing arm. He led the Pittsburgh Pirates to two world championships, in 1960 and 1971, the latter time being named the Most Valuable Player in the World Series.
Stats aside, however, Clemente’s number should be retired because of what he still represents to millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, where baseball is more popular than it is in the United States.
Although he may not have blazed the same trail that Robinson had, he dealt with just as much abuse and humiliation because of where he came from, the color of his skin, and the way he spoke.
He proudly flaunted his heritage and made no apologies for it.
At 38, Clemente was still playing at a high level in 1972. He was expected to be the Pirates’ right fielder the following season.
An earthquake devastated the city of Managua in Nicaragua in late December of 1972. Clemente organized a campaign in Puerto Rico to send money, food, and medical supplies to aid in the relief effort. When he heard that corrupt politicians were stealing what the Puerto Rican people had sent, he insisted on accompanying the next planeload. Clemente wanted to make certain that the supplies got into the hands of the people who needed them.
On New Year’s Eve the flight taxied down Runway 7 and was cleared for takeoff at 9:20 p.m. The weather was good and visibility was clear for 10 miles.
Upon takeoff, the plane gained very little altitude and at 9:23 p.m. the tower received a message that the plane was turning back around. The aircraft never made it, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean about one and a half miles from shore. Everyone aboard, including Roberto Clemente, perished in the crash.
Clemente is a Latin American hero. Hundreds of schools in the United States and Latin America are named after him.
Every September, Major League Baseball celebrates Roberto Clemente Day. Every year, the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team” is given the Roberto Clemente Award.
It’s time for baseball to extend one more honor to Clemente.
Retire number 21.