Today should be a momentous day as every player on every team in Major League Baseball should be wearing No. 21.
Now you may wonder why I say such a thing. It’s because today is the great Roberto Clemente’s birthday. Everyone knows that there is only one player whose number has been retired throughout the league – Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. The man who broke the color barrier. I believe that Roberto Clemente’s number 21 should be next.
He was a great player, one of the best ever to lace up the cleats, play the field, and more. He was a twelve-time all-star. He was a part of two World Series championships in 1960 and 1971. He was so good in the field, that he won twelve Gold Gloves. He was a league MVP, he was a World Series MVP. And of course, three thousand hits. And those are the LEAST of this accomplishments.
Roberto Clemente fought through race and ethnic barriers. He was a Black Puerto Rican man who had to navigate many difficult racial issues while trying to learn English. And what stood out most of all is that he did this with the grace and strength of a human being. He also did this with the uncompromising sense of self-worth, a man so humble that you had no choice but to root for his successes on and off the diamond.
And…….that isn’t his greatest accomplishment, either.
In addition to all that Clemente was a loving husband and father and son. And he was a humanitarian of the first order, someone who did everything he could to help his community, whether it was in Pittsburgh or in his home country of Nicaragua. He died tragically on New Year’s Eve in 1972 at 38 years young, when the plane he was on, which was overloaded with aid for earthquake victims in Nicaragua, crashed into the ocean.
Each year, Major League Baseball hands out the Roberto Clemente Award to a player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” It’s a great thing, one of the highest honors bestowed on today’s players.
Retiring his number should be next. It’s LONG overdue.
Clemente came to love and to be loved by working-class Pittsburgh, where he played his whole career. There was no free agency at the time, so players tended to stay with one team. There was no cable TV. There was no ESPN, no Fox Sports, et al (oh sometimes how I wish it were still true today).
There was no such thing as fantasy baseball, daily fantasy leagues, et al. There was a game of the week on television and the rest of the season on radio. When it came to Pirates games, everyone knew whose name would be in the lineup in right field, Clemente.
After the Pirates won the World Series in 1971, Clemente was named the Most Valuable Player. In a post-game interview with Pirates’ announcer Bob Prince, Clemente said it was the proudest moment of his life. He said that he wanted to ask for the ‘blessing’ of his parents, who were watching in Puerto Rico, and spoke directly to them in Spanish.
On every team, when old time baseball fans were growing up, everybody wanted to wear No. 21.
On this day, Clemente’s birthday, every player should. And one day, a second number shall be retired by Major League Baseball, No. 21.