Retiring Clemente’s “21”

ClementesmallNow it is time to put aside the objective reporter’s stance and get a bit opinionated and even somewhat controversial. No, I am not about to advocate the advantages of a socialist baseball system that functions without owners, corporate franchises, player agents or free agency, like the one found in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. That argument (or at least my views on some of the plusses of the Cuban baseball system) will take up space on this page in the near future. My rant here is against those who argue that honoring Roberto Clemente’s impact on MLB history with a number retirement such as that afforded Jackie Robinson would either be out of line with Clemente’s overall contributions to the game, or perhaps might even in some way diminish Robinson’s historical achievement. I find both lines of thinking bogus and have already argued Clemente’s claim on immortality in an article about to be published in the 2007 summer edition of SABR’s (Society for American Baseball Research) journal The National Pastime. Let me only briefly summarize the gist of my own position here.

Past weeks have been filled with formal MLB-orchestrated celebrations of Jackie Robinson’s April 1947 crossing of organized baseball’s abhorrent "color line" in Brooklyn; these celebrations have found numerous players and even whole teams donning the "42" jersey which MLB moguls decided to premanently retire in 1997 (the 50th anniversary date) in appropriate honor of Jackie’s courageous and pioneering 1947 performance. One subtle irony of the entire affair, of course, was that a great majority of modern-era black big leaguers who have benefitted so drastically from Robinson and Rickey’s noble experiment likely didn’t know what JR’s number was (or much about the man himself) before "42" was resurrected and hung on stadium walls all around the majors. Another irony, of course, is that last month’s onfield celebrations of JR’s door-opening achievement were played out against a backdrop of numerous stories in the print and electronic about the diminishing presence of black athletes (read here African-Americans) on the big league scene. In fact, it seemed quite apparent at the time that one prime objective of the recent media campaign attached to Jackie’s memory was indeed an effort to combat the lost prestige of the diamond sport among youth in today’s African-American communities (if not in the larger North American community itself).

Let me underscore here in bold print that I do not wsh to deny or denigrate Jackie Robinson’s achievement (or its historical significance) here for an instant. The retirment of JR’s "42" is in all ways justified. My contention is only that Clemente played every bit the same roll for Latino ballplayers and fans (and thus for the cultural diversity and racial justice of the sport and the larger society) as did Robinson for African Americans. In one sense at least Clemente’s legacy is more deep-seated with the Latino community than Robinson’s among our black communities. If many of today’s black players have indeed forgotten JR’s legacy and impact, this can hardly been said of Latino aficionados and Clemente. For several decades Latino stars have elected to wear Clemente’s number in honor of their heritage (Jose Guillen, Sammy Sosa, Ruben Sierra, and Esteban Loiaza provide a handful of examples) whereas one is hard pressed to think of a single African-American star who has opted to wear "42" for its historic significance. And while baseball has apparently by all reports faded in the nation’s African American and inner-city neighborhoods, this is certainly no so of the game’s hold on Latino communities. In fact the claim that there are few blacks now entering the game is quite bogus in itself; the truth is that there are as many black stars now as ever before. It is only that they are in the great majority Afro-Latinos and not Afro-Americans. As huge as the Afro-American impact was on baseball in the 1950s (Aaron, Mays, Newcombe, Doby, Frank Robinson etc.), it was no larger or more significant than the Latino impact on the game in the 1990s and 2000s (Big Papi, Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Vlad Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez etc.). American blacks saved MLB in the fifties and Latinos have been doing so in the past two decades. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Clemente’s inspiration to young Latino athletes since the mid-fifties has been the game’s sole salvation in the the late-twentieth century. Without Latino and other international stars MLB might well today be on life-support. MLB has paid much lip service of late to recognizing its future as an international game. Perhaps nothing would clinch that point any better than honoring the number "21" of the sport’s first true international star.

TomasdelacruzAfro-Cuban Tommie de la Cruz pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944, three series before Jackie Robinosn’s debut in Brooklyn.

I have devoted space in the upcoming SABR TNP article to laying out Clemente’s Cooperstown credentials vis-a-vis the dossier of JR, and I will thus save those details for readers of the article itself when it appears. Clemente’s claim on Cooperstoen was made as both a pioneer (like Robinson) and as an onfield non-pareil (where he far outstripped JR). Some have argued that Clemente does not deserve the same treatment as Robinson because he was not, after all, the game’s (MLB’s) first Latino. But JR was not the sport’s first black pioneer either; a handful of Latinos (Afro-Latinos like Cubans Roberto Estalella and Tomas de la Cruz or Venezuela’s Alex Carrasquel) got there a number of years earlier; but with hardly a notice since they could be easily and conveniently dismissed as mere "foreigners" and thus not unwanted true blacks. Robinson’s immortality has not ever rested on an historical quirk of primacy, but rather on the actual psychological impact of his debute upon the edntire North American nation. The same can and should be claimed for Clemente, who launched with his inspiration a Latino invasion and heritage in major league baseball which is likely to far outstrip (if it has not already) the African-American influences upon what has long been the Pan American and not just the North American national pastime.



  1. Rafael

    Great piece, as always. It’s true that Clemente was the first bona fide breakout latino star in Major League Baseball, the first one who truly became a household name.

    It’s true that Venezuelans admire their MLB players ever since the Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio days, and they continue to do so to this day; but that phenomenon was confined to the country itself. Now Puerto Rico’s Clemente really became a superstar in his own right; and was a true example both on and off the field.

    I know that if it wasn’t for guys such as Clemente, Carrasquel or Aparicio, I wouldn’t even be writing these lines.



    I respect Clemente’s contributions to the game and the impact he had on those in the Latin community; I am not even necessarily opposed to his number being retired. But his and Robinson’s actions had some essential differences.

    JR’s main contribution is not as an impetus for African-Americans’s to play baseball because there was already a thriving Negro League of which he had been apart. Robinson’s move was to break the unspoken barrier of the color line, and his intergration of the game had an impact on much more than baseball. Robinson’s number is retired not just for being someone who inspired a new demographic, but as a National icon who integrated “America’s game” a decade before America itself had even begun the process.

    I think you make a number of good arguments for Clemente, but if Robinson is the standard you wish to judge by, he does not fit.

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