By Thomas Holmes
On September 15th, Major League Baseball celebrated Roberto Clemente Day. Like Jackie Robinson Day, April 15th, players took to the field wearing Clemente’s number 21. This is an annual event that MLB started in the 2020 season to focus on the emergence of Latin-born players in the 1960s. It is viewed as a continuation of Robinson’s efforts to integrate baseball.
Eight years after Robinson broke the color barrier, Clemente used the foundation of Robinson’s civil activism to improve the quality of life for players of color.
It was not easy for Clemente. Clemente endured the same segregation and Jim Crow laws that Robinson experienced. Segregation was a foreign concept to the Puerto Rico native where society had been unified. During this time, baseball was moving in forward motion in social advancements; however, Southern states’ legislative movements had stalled and were outdated.
Efforts were made to soften Clemente’s Latin brand. Media referred to him as Bob instead of Roberto, which he detested. Clemente was born in Puerto Rico but made it his mission to represent all Latin nations and their people.
Clemente was an undeniable force with a bat and a glove. During his 18-year career with the Pirates, Clemente was a two-time World Series champion, 12-time Gold Glove Award winner in right field and 15-time All-Star in addition to being the 1966 National League MVP. He was also the first Latin American player to reach the hallowed 3,000-hit mark which resulted in being the first player from Latin America inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
We celebrate him today for his off-field humanitarian contributions and his efforts to end segregation within baseball. Selfless to the end, Clemente died in a tragic plane crash bringing much-needed aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
With all of Clemente’s accomplishments on and off the field and now with an annual celebration of life, is it time to retire his number league-wide?
These triumphs do mirror Robinson’s achievements. Additionally, both have annual awards named after each other which are presented by MLB at the end of each season. The Jackie Robinson Award is given to the best rookie in each league. The Roberto Clemente Award is bestowed upon a player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy, and positive contributions, both on and off the field.
Both players immensely affected civil and social movements and had Hall of Fame-worthy careers. But what does Robinson have over Clemente? Why doesn’t the MLB retire number 21 league-wide, as they did to Robinson’s 42?
Clemente has two championships over Robinson’s one. Robinson didn’t reach 3000 hits. The closest statistic for these Hall of Famers is the career batting average being off by four points, Robinson batted .313 and Clemente had a .317 average. Furthermore, Clemente had 99 more home runs.
MLB Network also sees the players as having a similar impact. Content is produced in studios labeled Studio 42 and Studio 21.
Retiring a number is a great honor. Retiring it league-wide involves a monumental impact on the game and society. There isn’t a criterion for retiring a number. Each franchise commemorates players for various accomplishments.
In fact, there are 189 players with retired numbers in the MLB. Granted that some players’ numbers are retired more than once for different franchises (i.e. Greg Maddux with the Cubs and Braves).
Compare the 189 retired numbers to the 263 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mathematically, having a number retired is more difficult than being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
So, will fans see Clemente’s 21 retired league-wide? Is the number 21 the new 42? Does it stop there?
Many years ago, there was talk about retiring Ruth’s number 3 league-wide. Ruth did challenge the social norms of the time and posted monster numbers. Will there ever be an equal to Jack Rosevelt Robinson and his physical and mental capability?
Thomas Holmes is a lifelong Yankees fan, born and raised on Long Island. His writing style connects names and numbers.
Roberto Clemente’s Major League Baseball debut was on April 15, 1955, in a road game against Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers won 10-3 behind a home run and a pair of doubles from Roy Campanella. Robinson went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI. Clemente singled in his first big league at-bat off Johnny Podres.