Roberto Clemente: Baseball Icon and Political Football?
By Cecil Harris
Few athletes in any sport have had as much impact, on and off the field, as Roberto Clemente. Baseball immortalized the Pittsburgh Pirates legend by inducting him into the Hall of Fame in 1973, seven months after his tragic death at age 38 in a New Year's Eve plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Normally, baseball players must wait five years after their final game to be considered for induction into the Hall. But Clemente was deemed so special, and his off-season sacrifice so enormous, that baseball rightfully made an exception. By the way, the five-year rule has not been waived for anyone else and may never be waived again. Nonetheless, a feeling persists among many of Clemente's most ardent supporters that baseball has not done enough to honor the memory of the Carolina, P.R. native.
A movement has been formed in the Latino community to urge Major League Baseball to retire Clemente's uniform number 21, just as MLB did in honor of Jackie Robinson, the sport's first black player. Baseball announced on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, that no major-league player would ever again be assigned Number 42. (Players who already had the number, such as New York Yankees relief ace Mariano Rivera, were allowed to keep it.)
Advocates such as journalist Danny Torres of LatinoSports.com say retiring Clemente's number would send a powerful message that baseball truly respects the enormous contributions to the sport made by Latino players, for whom Clemente will always be an icon, and would serve as a lasting symbol of inspiration to Latinos everywhere.
Clemente has the resume of a baseball immortal. In 18 seasons, all with the Pirates, he had exactly 3,000 hits. His final hit came in his final major-league game, October 3, 1972, against the New York Mets. He had a .317 career batting average and 240 home runs. Clemente's best season came in 1966, when he had 29 home runs, 117 runs batted in, a .317 average and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. He led the Pirates to World Series titles in 1960 and 1971, winning Series MVP honors in 1971. Twelve consecutive Gold Gloves (1961-72) and a powerful throwing arm underscored Clemente's brilliance as a right fielder.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has been contacted by a group in favor of retiring Clemente's number. What happened?
"The Commissioner promised to take it under advisement," MLB spokesman Rich Levin told me in a telephone interview. What does "take it under advisement" mean? Basically, nothing. Selig has the authority to announce the retiring of Clemente's number today if he wished. The proposal does not have to be voted upon by any board of directors. It does not need two-thirds approval, or 51 percent approval, from team owners or general managers or players or hot-dog vendors or any group that makes its living from baseball. This is strictly Selig's call, and I believe it is a call he would prefer not to make for as long as he can avoid it.
The retiring of Robinson's number rubbed some people the wrong way, but it was done anyway, largely because Selig deemed it the right thing to do.
I suspect the issue of retiring Clemente's number is a Pandora's Box that baseball would rather not open. Those who criticized retiring Robinson's number would almost certainly object more vigorously in Clemente's case. Why? Because Clemente, for all his athletic greatness and humanitarianism, was not quite the ground-breaker that Robinson was. Clemente, for all the racism he endured as a Latino forced to adapt to a different language and cultural mores in America, was not constantly subjected to death threats and overt on-field harassment in the 1950s and '60s as Robinson was.
But let me make this clear: it's not a question of who suffered more, Robinson or Clemente? Obviously, each man overcame racism and became an iconic figure who transcended the sport in which he excelled. I covered Major League Baseball as a Yankees beat writer in 1997, and I'll repeat now what I said then: Robinson had a unique burden as the first, the trailblazer whose success opened the door for all nonwhite ballplayers who followed.
Italian baseball fans asked me a decade ago, "What about retiring Joe DiMaggio's Number 5? We're as proud of him as blacks are of Robinson?" But, eventually, they understood Robinson's unique contribution to athletics and race relations and they backed off. Similarly, Jewish baseball fans told me, "Why shouldn't they retire Sandy Koufax's Number 32? Didn't he refuse to pitch in a World Series game in 1963 because it fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day? Do you realize how much pride we felt as Jews on that day. And again, two days later, when Sandy pitched a shutout and helped the Dodgers win the Series?" I even heard from Jewish fans who wanted baseball to retire the number of Hank Greenberg, a star slugger for the Detroit Tigers in the 1940s.
If there is any outspoken opposition to retiring Clemente's number, I strongly suspect it would come from white ethnic and religious groups who would believe their baseball brethren deserve a similar honor. I don't believe any serious opposition would come from African Americans. While it is true that Frank Robinson, a baseball Hall of Famer who is black, said he is opposed to retiring Clemente's number, Hank Aaron, another Hall of Famer who is black, said he is in favor of it.
My educated guess is that, in the end, the debate over retiring Clemente's number will become a political football, one that gets kicked around philosophically and ideologically until Selig, the man entrusted with making the decision, chooses the least controversial option and does nothing at all.
Cecil Harris is a freelance journalist based in New York and contributes articles to Puerto Rico Sun. He is the author of "Breaking the Ice," a book about the black experience in professional hockey, and of "Call the Yankees My Daddy," a behind the scenes look at the New York Yankees from the perspective of a journalist and a lifelong fan.