No. 21 Deserves to be Hailed. But Not Like No. 42

Robinson blazed the trail for each of these heroes.

Robinson blazed the trail for each of these heroes.

Roberto Clemente was a hero. Not in the flimsy way the word is typically tossed around today – especially in reference to athletes and, ahem, vice presidential candidates. He was a hero in every sense of the word.

He was a great player. Not in the flimsy way the word is tossed around today – especially in reference to athletes and, ahem, former presidents. He was great in every sense of he word.

Baseball is right to honor Clemente with his own special “day,” as the sport will do on Wednesday in every ballpark. The day will commemorate his wondrous life and celebrate the 30 finalists for the 2008 Roberto Clemente Award.

The award keeps alive the legacy of the Hall of Famer rightfielder and 12-time All-Star who died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1972, while attempting to deliver life-saving supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua. The list of 37 winners may be the most impressive anywhere in the sport – with almost all of them either Hall of Famers, sure-to-be HOFers or should-be HOFers.

The award and the fraternity of those so honored in his name are a fitting tribute to perhaps the greatest combination of athletic gifts and a humanitarian heart that sports has ever seen.

Some would also add another honor: Retiring Clemente’s No. 21 from all of baseball (Pittsburgh has rightly retired the number from use by another Pirate), as was Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 just over a decade ago.

Several groups have lobbied for years for the moves, and it is said to be “under advisement” by baseball’s gatekeepers, a/k/a/ commissioner Bud Selig and his crew.

It should never happen.

No. 21 should not be retired from all of baseball, and saying so is no slight at all to Clemente.

There was but one Jackie Robinson.

He not only changed baseball, but he changed America.

He paved the way not just for for blacks in baseball but for Latinos and even today’s Asian players.

And I have no doubt the path he carved paved the way for a black man to be at the doorstep of the White House – the front door.

Two years ago, Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, made her beliefs clear to the New York Daily News: “”Clemente did an awful lot of good things and was a terrific ballplayer, but I don’t think it’s the same type of situation as Jackie Robinson,” she said “I totally think that Roberto’s accomplishments should continue to be spotlighted and highlighted as a major part of baseball and American culture, as well as Puerto Rico’s culture.”

Interestingly none of the efforts to have Clemente’s number retired has been led by member of the Clemente family. Two of his sons, Luis and Roberto, Jr., have been politely supportive but mostly silent on the issue. “We support the cause because it’s a worthwhile honor, not because my dad was another player with great records, but because of what he taught us as a human being — not tolerating any social discrimination, supporting the working class, the needy,” Luis told USA Today two years ago.

Today, several active players wear No. 21 in honor of Clemente and, in many accounts, the sons have expressed their pride in that fact.

Indeed some – our “conspiracy” friends – see the efforts to “retire” No. 21 as a means of slowly obliterating Clemente’s legacy from view.

That is not my view.

I simply believe that there should be only one number retired by all of baseball: No. 42. And perhaps the greatest tribute to Clemente and those that honor him would be for baseball to announce that retiring No. 21 was no longer “under advisement.”

It would be the heroic thing to do.


2 thoughts on “No. 21 Deserves to be Hailed. But Not Like No. 42

  1. Roberto Germain says:

    Major League Baseball Officially Retires Number 21

    The public statement above has not happened to date, but the announcement is long over due. Roberto Clemente, the man most recognized by number 21 on his jersey, is a Hall of Fame baseball player who was also committed to helping the less fortunate. His career was cut tragically short by an accident December 31st, 1972 as he was delivering emergency relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente had taken upon himself to direct personally a relief mission to earthquake torn Nicaragua. Bound to Nicaragua, Clemente and four others loaded a small DC-7 plane with food and supplies that never got past the San Juan border as the plane almost immediately crashed into 30 feet of water in the Caribbean Sea. The Baseball’s Writer Association of America immediately waived the customary five-year wait and voted Roberto Clemente into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on August 8, 1973 — making him the first Latino to be inducted’ and only the second player to be waived from the five-year requirement, Lou Gehrig was the other.

    Jackie Robinson is currently the only major leaguer to have number 42 retired by all 30 teams. Recognition well deserved, Jackie became the first black baseball player in the modern major leagues when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In 1962 he became the first black player elected to the Baseballs Hall of Fame. After retiring from baseball, Robinson became a prominent business and political figure. Jackie Robinson is only the second player to get the Congressional Gold Medal. Guess who the first player was? The First was Roberto Clemente. Both Jackie and Roberto became Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients.

    The two men were thrilling ferocious exciting competitors who with determination and grace not only made sports history by Jackie helping to launch the civil rights era and Roberto living his life throughout his career as a true humanitarian.

    The Latin American experience was not only the same experience as the African American ball players, but in addition, they had a language barrier which in many cases was another reason to treat them badly. Latin American players were perceived to be not so intelligent because they could not be properly understood. Roberto Clemente experienced this on a regular basis. Clemente who spoke Spanish with clarity and education would be misquoted when speaking in English. The media would quote him phonetically thus resulting in some funny out take of the man.

    It is not wrong for baseball to retire number 21 throughout all the 30 Major League baseball teams. It is the Right thing to do! What is wrong is for MLB to ignore the fact that the fans are calling for this, not too mention many of the Latin American Baseball Players.

    Roberto’s influence is evident on every team and farm system in all of baseball. Every team in the majors has Latin players today representing All 30 teams and most Latin American countries because of Roberto Clemente’s influence throughout Latin America.

    In 2002, Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig announced that on Sept. 18 will be known as “Roberto Clemente Day.”

    The celebrations will be a league-wide effort that has been initiated to honor the memory of Roberto Clemente, and coincides with Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations. As part of the tribute, the local recipients of the Roberto Clemente Award presented by John Hancock will be recognized at each club’s home game annually.

    “It has been almost thirty years since Roberto Clemente’s untimely death,” said Commissioner Selig. “He will be remembered as a great baseball player and humanitarian. To honor his legacy, we have designated this special day to not only remember Roberto, but to honor those players who have contributed so much to their communities.”

    This all good to hear, but the truth is if his legacy is to be remembered and honored by MLB, then the proper thing to do is to retire Roberto Clemente’s number 21.

    Bowie Kuhn then the commissioner of MLB said at the 1973 Hall of Fame induction Ceremony “So very great was he as a player. So very great was he as a leader. So very great was he as a humanitarian. So very great was he as an inspiration to the young, and so very great was his devotion to young people and particularly to the young people of his native island of Puerto Rico. Having said all of those words, they are very inadequate to describe the real greatness of Roberto Clemente”.

    In another statement he said “He gave the term ‘complete’ a new meaning. He made the word ‘superstar’ seem inadequate. He had about him the touch of royalty.”
    Roberto Clemente the ball player/humanitarian is deserving of this honorable distinction. Retiring number 21 is the right thing to do regardless of what Ms. Sharon Robinson (Jackie’s daughter) and a few selfish people have said that only Jackie’s number should be retired.

    Roberto Clemente will always be remembered as the Hall of Fame Baseball Player of the Pittsburg Pirates organization, He will also be remembered on a bigger global stage as the man who sacrificed himself regardless of the possible consequences to help others in time of need and this I say is bigger than the game of baseball. It’s time for baseball to step up to the plate and continue to do the right thing. Retire 21. There is plenty of room in Major League Baseball for two great men. Honor Roberto, the fans have spoken.

    Finally, yes I do support the retirement on number 21 by a MLB teams. I believe there are only three ball players that should have this honor. All three for very distintive reasons, they are Jackie Robinson’ 42, Roberto Clemente’s 21 and Babe Ruth’s number 3. Baseball would not have been known as our national pastime today if it were not for Babe Ruth.

    In our country we have always recognized those individual’s who have performed above and beyond the call of duty by honoring their memories. I guess the point I’m trying to make is if we can have more than one Medal of Honor Winner which is our Nation highest award. Why can’t Baseball do the same and honor three of the most impact players the game has ever known on and off the field?

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