The Great Roberto Clemente: #Retire21
Today is Roberto Clemente Day in Major League Baseball. The nominees for the Roberto Clemente Award will be honored on this day and the winner announced in October as voted upon by the fans and members of the media. Originally instituted in 1971 and known as the Commissioner’s Award, the award was renamed in 1973, after Clemente’s tragic death on New Year’s Eve 1972. He would have been 81 this year, his birthday being just weeks ago on August 18. He passed at the age of 38.
Clemente has his own day in Major League Baseball on which the nominees for his prestigious award are honored, as is Clemente; his number 21 is put on bases, fields etc. Number 21 has been retired in Pittsburgh, the only team Clemente ever played for during his 18-year career.
What is puzzling is that his number is not universally retired, the way Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is. Clemente’s number 21 should be universally retired throughout Major League Baseball because he was not only a great player, who like Robinson, made strides for non-white players in the midst of the civil rights movement but he was also a great humanitarian who cared more about others than himself.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to make a difference in this world and you dont, you are wasting your time on earth.” – Roberto Clemente
Clemente was one of the best players of his time. He helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series victory in 1960, along with a game-seven-winning home run by his teammate, second baseman, Bill Mazeroski. Clemente, a four-time National League batting champion, appeared in 15 All-Star games over 12 seasons (MLB held two All-Star games a season from 1950-1962). He was named the MVP of the National League in 1966. These accomplishments easily attest to his greatness on the field.
Moreso do the accounts of those who actually saw him play. Academy Award nominated actor Michael Keaton, a native of Pittsburgh, told MLB Network Wednesday that seeing him play in person was truly, “a thing of beauty.”
My mother grew up a Pirates fan in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and 60’s. She watched him play many times and said that he was her hero. He could do everything on that ball field. According to many accounts he could run, hit and the best part about watching him, at least according to my mother, was his “incredible arm.” You never ran on the Pirates’ right fielder. He was just that unbelievable of a ballplayer.
Playing in the midst of the civil rights movement, even though he wasn’t black but Puerto Rican, he still faced racism throughout his career. During his first spring training he was shocked when he experienced prejudice for the first time in his life when they would not let him stay with the team, but had him reside with a family away from the team, similar to the way Jackie Robinson was treated. He was a big part of breaking that stigma, being a significant influence in baseball in the sixties.
However, that racism didn’t filter down to the children who looked up to him. My mother hardly remembers any racism in her Penn Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Yet she remembers that everyone loved “The Great One” long before Wayne Gretzky took over the nickname. In an email, she told me her feelings about him in her own words:
“I was just a kid when we watched Roberto Clemente play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. What I remember is how beloved he was by the fans. Everyone loved Roberto Clemente, including me. We used to sit along the right field side and it was such a thrill to watch him play. The strength of his throws, his batting and his stature. The entire stadium would roar when Clemente made one of his spectacular plays or when he walked up to the plate. We loved him not only because he was a great athlete, but also because he was such a generous person. It never occurred to me that he was anything but Clemente… All I saw on the field was a man who made a town proud. He did it then and his legacy does it now.”
Keaton, too, acknowledged that there was racism but told MLB Network that,
“if you asked any white kid who they wanted to be and their answer was always, ‘The Great One.’”
Kids then could not see race but Clemente faced it. Even though Mazeroski was beloved as an amazing ballplayer and for his historic home run, it was Clemente that the children and people of Pittsburgh looked up to and not just because of his greatness on the field.
Clemente was a giving, caring, heroic person and humanitarian. He gave back not only to his native Puerto Rico but to many Latin American and Carribbean countries, dedicating his offseasons to delivering baseball supplies as well as food to those in need. His work as a good samaritan ultimately led to his demise.
Clemente was 38 years old when he had his final at-bat as a Major Leaguer. He hit his 3,000th hit that day but it would be his last hit ever. Over the offseason, Clemente was in Venezuela when he boarded a plane to Nicaragua to deliver supplies to earthquake victims. The plane was overloaded with supplies and the crew was not completely qualified. The plane crashed not long after takeoff, killing everyone on board that New Year’s Eve.
Although I am to young to have ever seen Roberto Clemente play, I was brought up knowing about not only his greatness as a baseball player but of his amazing humanitarian works. He was taken far too early from this world. I have always held him in the highest esteem, as the ideal of what a baseball player should be.
“I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all I had to give” – Roberto Clemente
With so many scandals these days involving players from all sports from PEDs to domestic violence, a person like Clemente should be celebrated everyday, not just on one day of the season. His number 21 should be universally retired in Major League Baseball because of his generosity as a man, his humanitarianism, his ability to withstand and stand up against racism, and for his unmatched abilities as a ballplayer.
Clemente is truly the embodiment of the ideal of what a baseball player should be. He gave his all on and off the field. His number should be retired by Major League Baseball. #Retire21 (please use the hashtag if you agree!)