Clemente and the magic of 21

There a few numbers in sports more iconic than Roberto Clemente's. Getty Images

If Earl Smith had had a more or less adequate career in the major leagues, maybe PNC Park's right field wall would stand 13 feet high.
Smith, who debuted as a 27-year-old center fielder in 1955, was the last player to wear No. 21 on the Pittsburgh Pirates' roster before Roberto Clemente. The Puerto Rican player, a rookie, began the 1955 season wearing No. 13, but he chose No. 21 (which was the number of letters in his full name, Roberto Clemente Walker) when Smith was returned to the minor leagues in May after getting just one hit in 21 (yes, 21) plate appearances.

Over the next 18 seasons, Clemente ensured that no other Pirate would wear his number, through a stellar career in which he had a lifetime batting average of .317 while collecting 3,000 hits. Also, he reinvented the way in which right field was played with his magical fielding and his powerful arm. His tragic death while on a humanitarian mission to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972, made him one of the most admired people in the sports world, and many baseball players have worn his number as homage to their role model.

No number is more revered in Puerto Rican sports than Clemente's 21, and he is perhaps the Latin American athlete who has received the most posthumous honors. Players such as Carlos Delgado and Ruben Sierra wore it during the greater part of their careers, and Delgado paid him a spontaneous homage during the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic by requesting that the Puerto Rican national team retire the mythical number, opting instead for No. 25. Besides Delgado, players such as right fielders Sammy Sosa and Paul O'Neill wore the number throughout their careers in honor of Clemente. More recently, the number is also worn by Nick Markakis, a right fielder with good offensive qualities who, like Clemente, tries to do his part to change the world through his charitable foundation.

"When I asked for 22 in Cincinnati as a rookie, the veteran Dave Collins had it," Paul O'Neill reminisced on his website about how he chose to wear No. 21. "I did think of Clemente because we used to watch him play coming through Columbus to play the Columbus Jets in preseason exhibitions. They were a Pirate farm club in the 1960s, and we had many of Clemente's cards. The Pirates had big stars in addition to him, [Willie] Stargell, [Manny] Sanguillen, [Richie] Hebner, [Bill] Mazeroski. I admire Clemente because he was a World Series champion and transcended the game like Jackie [Robinson] and Babe [Ruth]."

At PNC Park, the height of the right field wall is elevated to 21 feet, just one of the hundreds of tributes that Clemente has received in Pittsburgh and in the major leagues since his death 40 years ago. There are approximately 150 places around the world that bear his name, including the main ballpark in his home town of Carolina, the main baseball stadium in the city of Masaya, Nicaragua, as well as hundreds of streets, schools and avenues in Nicaragua, the United States, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

That should not surprise anybody in these countries with such a rich baseball tradition, and least of all in Nicaragua, where he is considered a national hero. It is fitting that Pittsburgh is home to the Clemente Museum and the Roberto Clemente Bridge, and that the main statue in front of PNC Park is that of "the Great One." Also, it is no surprise that a Roberto Clemente State Park exists in the Bronx, that there is a Roberto Clemente Elementary School in Newark and a Roberto Clemente Middle School in Maryland, nor that the Roberto Clemente Community Academy operates in Chicago.

The Mannheim team in the German Baseball-Bundesliga plays its home games at Roberto Clemente Field. And in Liberia, the country in West Africa founded by freed slaves from the United States who went back to their roots, there is a coin, used as legal tender, with a picture of Clemente's face on the front.

Just several months after his death, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn created the Roberto Clemente Award, originally known as the Commissioner's Award, to give recognition to baseball players who best follow Clemente's example with humanitarian work. Players such as Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Al Kaline, Lou Brock and Dale Murphy and, more recently, Carlos Delgado, David Ortiz, Edgar Martinez, Markakis and Clayton Kershaw saw their social commitment rewarded by the award, a bronze statue.

"I only hope that this inspires other baseball players to do something for people," Ortiz told ESPNdeportes.com when he received the award in 2011. "Because there are a lot of people who need help out there."

"Just being associated with someone like Roberto Clemente is truly humbling, and I am extremely grateful," said Kershaw, who financed and helped build and sustain the Hope's Home orphanage in Zambia, among other projects.

Pittsburgh's left-handed batters would have preferred that Smith had worn No. 21 for longer and that Clemente had kept No. 13, because the PNC Park's new Green Monster would have measured nine feet less. But the world celebrates Roberto Clemente and shows its gratitude in many ways, despite the passing of time, for this extraordinary athlete's contributions to humanity.