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Roberto Clemente

I saw this story in the Chron awhile back and meant to write about it but never got to it. As today is the day of the MLB All Star Game in Pittsburgh, in which I have no interest beyond that of any other exhibition game, I figure now is as good a time as any to blog about an effort to get all major league teams to retire uniform number 21 in honor of Pirates great and Latino hero Roberto Clemente.

Hispanic supporters delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures [in June] asking Major League Baseball to retire the jersey No. 21 belonging to Roberto Clemente, one of the game’s greatest Latin heroes.

The honor would recognize the growing status of Latin American ballplayers in the U.S. national pastime at a time when Hispanic immigrants are asserting their rights in U.S. society amid a political debate about immigration policy.

Clemente, of Puerto Rico, was a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was revered for the way he lived – as a proud ambassador for Latin America – and how he died – in a plane crash at age 38 while delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims on December 31, 1972.

Major League Baseball is considering the move but acknowledged that one issue was whether it would dilute the recognition given to the only player to have his number retired throughout baseball, Jackie Robinson.

Robinson’s No. 42 was retired from all Major League teams in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier, when he became the first black player of the modern era, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“I think there’s enough space for a great Latin American alongside a great African American,” said Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, who delivered the petition in cardboard boxes to the league’s office in Manhattan.

“It would be the best company that Jackie Robinson could ever have,” Mateo said.

[…]

Robinson’s daughter Sharon Robinson opposed retiring Clemente’s number, the New York Daily News reported.

“The purpose of retiring my father’s number is that what he did changed all of baseball, not only for African Americans but also for Latinos, so I think that purpose has been met,” she told the paper in a January interview.

Roberto Clemente was not the pioneer that Jackie Robinson was. Almost every major league team had integrated by the time he was a rookie in 1955, and as Latino Baseball notes, Latinos have been a part of MLB since 1902. Clemente was not the first breakout star among Latinos – that was Minnie Minoso, who along with Chico Carrasquel was the first Latin-born player to participate in an All Star Game. Clemente was not the first Latino to be Rookie of the Year – he didn’t win that particular honor, but Luis Aparicio did, in 1956. And Clemente was not the first Latino to win the Most Valuable Player award. That was…no, I’ll leave that as a trivia question. Check the extended entry for the answer. Anyone who knows this one off the top of the head is a true fan.

Having said all that, Clemente is most definitely a player who is worthy of more recognition, including at a league-wide level. His death in 1972 was as heroic as it was shocking and tragic. He’s the only person to have the five-year post-career waiting period for induction into the Hall of Fame waived. He was a truly great player, and a role model for all. I’m agnostic on the question of whether or not the number 21 should be retired by all teams, but I think a nice, long, national discussion about the contributions of men like Roberto Clemente and what they brought as immigrants to America would be a fine thing to have this summer. To that end, I salute the efforts of Fernando Mateo and Hispanics Across America.

(One correction to the history laid out above by Latino Baseball: Chico Carrasquel was not the American League MVP in 1950; that honor went to Phil Rizzuto. Click the More link to see which player of Hispanic origin was the first to win an MVP award.)


The first Latino MVP was Zoilo Versalles, who won the award as a 25-year-old shortstop for the pennant-winning Minnesota Twins of 1965. Versalles, who was Cuban-born, never had another year nearly as good as that one. Clemente won his only MVP in 1966, though he finished in the top five three other times (1961, 1967, and 1971).

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5 Comments

  1. Sue says:

    I have lots of respect for what Clemente did. But his number has been retired where it needed to be retired, with the Pirates. What’s next? Retiring Ichiro’s number when he retires?

    I don’t think Jackie Robinson’s number needed to be retired by every team, either. League-wide stuff like this just makes it all political. Baseball isn’t about politics.

  2. Tim says:

    I agree with Sue. Otherwise, as one-quarter American Indian, I would demand that the league retire the number of Jim Thorpe…except that Thorpe played before numbers were on the back.

    What’s next? Byung-Hyun Kim or See Heop Choi for Koreans? Ichiro’s #51 retired league-wide?

    Seriously, though, where does it stop? Is there eventually going to be a “token” retired number for every race as soon as there’s a Hall of Fame-caliber player of said race (who has presumably passed away if precedent is respected)?

    The Dodgers properly retired Robinson’s number 42.

    The Pirates properly retired Clemente’s number 21.

    Beyond that, as a league-wide thing, you’re SEEING the political aspect of it. Which is why, as much as I admired, understood and respected the spirit of it, I didn’t like retiring #42 league-wide. I believed then that it would open a Pandora’s Box of everyone wanting their group’s Favorite Son honored with a league-wide number retirement.

    Unfortunately we can’t put the genie back into the bottle on that bad idea.

    As soon as you give one group something special, everyone’s gonna be lining up at the door.

  3. Edmund Cogburn says:

    What about Lefty Gomez and Eddie Lopat?

  4. Lefty Gomez would count as a breakout star. He was American-born, though, and looking at pictures of him, I’m guessing he might have “passed” as Anglo. I’ve read a lot about the Yankees in my life, and don’t ever recall reading about Lefty being perceived as a Latino player. I could easily be wrong, but that’s my take on him.

    I had no idea Eddie Lopat (also American born) was Latino. I’ve read even more about the Yankees of his era than I have of Gomez’s, and I definitely don’t ever recall him being referred to as Latino. Again, this is my impression, so take it as you will.

    FWIW, Lefty Gomez was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 by the Veterans’ Committee. If you count him as a Latino player, he made it in before Clemente did. After Googling around a bit, I haven’t really found much to indicate his heritage was an issue during his career. I’ll have to do some more study on that.

  5. Adrian says:

    The problem with this is (I’m Puerto Rican) that Causian and African Americans are looking at Roberto Clemente as black and people look at Lefty Gomez as white.But if you were to ask PuertoRicans most people what Roberto Clemente he was people will say Puerto Rican.And Lefty Gomez(he had a Spanish surname) had Mexican blood in him so he has to be qualified as Hispanic at least half.And the other problem is Hispanics themselves can’t come to an agreement on who is consider Hispanic.Ted Williams was also half Mexican you have to consider him half Mexican.Also remember Jackie Robinson did help african americans and Black Hispanics to Baseball but Lefty Gomez was winning World Series before Robinson even laid down a bunt.You have to consider white Hispanics as half Hispanic no matter how they look.

    Also the reason Jackie Robinson Jersey was retired was because he did something as a baseball player that was beyond being a great player like breaking the modern-era color barrier.Roberto Clemente did something that was beyond being a great baseball player that was doing charites and spending his life doing that.And going on a plane broken plane to send relief aid to a Nicauraga(hope I spelled that right) after a Hurricane.A country that he wasn’t from he tried to help.He was not the best baseball player(not even mentioned in the centuary team) but he was a hero in a baseball Jersey and deserves to have his number retired all in baseball.