Now I may get lambasted for what I am about to write, and frankly I couldn’t care less. I know what I say is not only correct, but it is not a slight on Jackie Robinson at all.
What Jackie did will obviously never be overtaken, but there is a player who I believe should be treated as his equal. With Number 42 retired all around baseball, as it should be, I believe there needs to be a second number that every team retires, that is number 21 (ironically half of 42).
If you don’t know instantly whose number that was, do your homework!!! It was the number of a man who had to endure a lot of what Jackie had to endure, but he did it not only with a different skin color but also speaking a different language.
It was a man who not only played the game at a Hall of Fame level, but lived his life that way too, until it was cut tragically short. Even in death he was not only being an amazing human being, but he directly affected the success of the team he once played for today.
Roberto Clemente is the man I am referring to, and he is so highly thought of, that his name was brought up to the Pope to have him canonized as a Saint. Although nothing has come of it yet, filmmaker Richard Rossi, himself an evangelical minister, has received support for the idea and even got a letter from the Vatican showing papal support in starting the process.
Clemente also had to endure a lot of the racism that Robinson endured, but had it two-fold. As he was black and Latino, so he was ostracized by a large number of not only the community, but his team-mates as well. He may not have experienced it to the extent of Jackie, but the fact that he had to endure any at all is a travesty.
So just how good was Clemente? He was a career .317 hitter who ended with exactly 3,000 hits. He also slugged 240 home runs and drove in over 1,300 runs. He was also quite possibly the greatest defensive outfielder the game has ever seen.
Every right fielder since Clemente has had their arm compared to Roberto’s. Even guys like Dwight Evans and Dave Parker will admit that nobody had a better arm than Clemente.
Clemente was always working for various charities and helping to make the world a better place. His ideal was that while he has it good, others do not and it is his job to help out where he can.
Sadly his life was cut short when at the age of just 38; he was killed in a plane crash. That alone would have been tragic enough, but it was on New Year’s Eve of 1972, and he was flying to Managua, Nicaragua to help bring supplies to the victims of a massive earthquake just a week before.
Again, that would have been tragic enough, except for the only reason he went on the flight was because the first three flights of supplies sent down there were all diverted by a corrupt government and the supplies never got to the victims, so Clemente thought his presence on the flight would allow the supplies to get through.
The airplane he chartered for a New Year’s Eve flight, a Douglas DC-7, had a history of mechanical problems and sub-par flight personnel, and it was overloaded by 4,200 pounds. It crashed into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico immediately after takeoff on Sunday December 31, 1972 and Clemente’s body was never found.
The other amazing part of this story is that a former team-mate of Clemente’s pitcher Tom Walker, helped load the plane and was going to go on the flight. But seeing as he was single and it was New Year’s Eve, Clemente convinced him not to go on the flight.
The amazing part of that story is that Walker did eventually get married and had a son. That son is Neil Walker, all-star second baseman of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and one of the major reasons there has been a resurgence of baseball in the Steel City. So even in death, Clemente did all he could to help his beloved Pirates.
There was so much more to his storied career that I could go into, but details of his greatness are not needed. What is needed is MLB to step-up and do the right thing by the Clemente family and make sure that nobody can wear the number 21 again.