Should Major League Baseball universally retire Roberto Clemente’s number 21 next to Jackie Robinson’s number 42?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years, and recently it became the topic of an ESPN online poll that showed I wasn’t the only fan who thinks such a move would be a no-brainer: close to 75 percent of respondents (about 23,000 votes) said yes.
But I have to admit, I thought 75 percent was a pretty low number, given Clemente’s stature in baseball mythology. Ever since the poll came out, I’ve been having a hard time understanding why about 25 percent of online voters believe a #Retire21 movement shouldn’t be happening, especially since on Tuesday night, Major League Baseball will be honoring him and all other Latin American-born Hall of Famers at the All-Star Game. It’s almost a guarantee that of all the players honored in Miami, Clemente will receive the loudest applause.
How could any baseball fan think that arguably the greatest Latin American ballplayer to ever play and represent the game should not even be considered for a universally retired number? Could it be that some fans still don’t know about Clemente’s legacy or, worse still, they just don’t care?
Apparently so, and in my quest to convince any doubter about why Clemente’s number should be next to Robinson’s, I actually spent the last week reading and analyzing what’s being said and tweeted against Clemente with the hope that I could win over a few more hearts.
The reasons against Clemente were plenty, but they mostly focused on these four points:
• Robinson broke the color barrier. Clemente did not compare one bit to what Robinson did.
• If Clemente’s number is universally retired, then MLB should do the same for Babe Ruth because Ruth had better numbers and he made the game global.
• Latino ballplayers could still wear 21 to honor to Clemente on the field.
• MLB is just catering to its Latino fan base.
As a player, Clemente’s statistics —12 Gold Gloves, MVP winner, World Series MVP winner, .317 career hitter, 3,000 career hits— are up there with the sport’s greats. In fact, his yearly averages were better than Robinson’s. And even though Robinson did indeed become the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947, throughout Clemente’s 17-year career (which began eight years after Robinson's), this proud black Puerto Rican dealt with racial, cultural and language issues head-on, even when he was mocked by sportswriters for his accent or when he couldn’t even stay with his white Pirates teammates in the segregated South.
Something as simple as a baseball card labeled “Bob Clemente” became the symbol of the cultural arrogance Roberto Clemente experienced daily. He could have been the angry Puerto Rican who let others define him. Instead, Clemente chose a different path — to never settle and prove through his actions that respect is always earned.
For those reasons and despite the challenges, Clemente always spoke with pride about who he was, saying this in 1969: "The farther away you writers stay, the better I like it. You know why? Because you’re trying to create a bad image of me … you do it because I’m black and Puerto Rican, but I’m proud to be Puerto Rican."
That message of being “proud to be Puerto Rican” wasn’t something you heard professional athletes playing in places far away from Puerto Rico say. So it was no wonder that Clemente fought for civil rights during the '60s, and in 1968, he led his Pirate teammates in not playing the team’s season opener just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Clemente had met in Puerto Rico a few years earlier.
Clemente was social consciousness, all the way until he died in a 1972 plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua — a tragedy forever etched in Puerto Rican Latin American and yes, U.S. history.
“Roberto Clemente is a hero of mine. He is the epitome of an athlete that transcended into the world, both he and Muhammad Ali,” Chuck D once said.
This social consciousness is what eventually separates Clemente from Ruth, too. The Bambino can surpass Clemente with his stats, but he will never match Clemente’s social justice legacy. Not even close, and there are no other baseball legends who can match it either. Stories about Clemente are deeply personal and go beyond baseball, diving into the cultural and societal attachments that have placed Clemente on a baseball mantel than only Robinson has surpassed. Ruth perhaps made the game global, but he was all about the game inside the lines, and rarely about what happened outside the game.
As David Maraniss wrote in 2012:
“Clemente became a patron saint in the Spanish-speaking baseball-playing world, as well as in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, a black Latino embraced by the nation’s quintessential white working-class town. His devoted following extends around the world; 40 schools and more than 200 parks are named in his honor, from Puerto Rico to Africa to Germany.”
There will always be more children who go to schools named after Clemente than those named after Babe Ruth. And there’s a reason for that.
As for those Latino ballplayers who still wear 21 to honor Clemente? They can wear the number until their careers are over, just like Mo Vaughn and Mariano Rivera wore 42 even when Robinson's number was already up the in rafters of every MLB stadium in the country.
So yes, would universally retiring Clemente’s number be seen as an obvious attempt by MLB to appeal to its Latino fan base? Of course, and MLB should have done it a while ago —its current rationale to honor Clemente does not go far enough. The game has gotten more Latino, more Latin American —and honoring Clemente at this stage would signal to the MLB world that Clemente also destroyed other barriers in this game that had to be broken.
The cultural barrier, for one.
The foreigner barrier, for another.
These barriers might not be as overtly racist as the ones Robinson broke, but they were a stain on MLB for decades, and the league should do the right thing and acknowledge that Clemente was the first true Latino player to topple these barriers and win.
It’s time to #Retire21.
Julio Ricardo Varela is co-host of the Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast. He is also the founder of LatinoRebels.com. Follow him @julito77.