January 29, 2006

Permanently Retiring Roberto Clemente’s Number: A Controversy That Shouldn’t Be So Controversial

Filed under: General — Tom @ 10:35 am

Note to non-sports types: This is not really a baseball story, but a story that ultimately touches the larger society. It will take a while to get there, so be patient.

Robinson Clemente

Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s Number 42 permanently in 1997 (Robinson is pictured at left) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his breaking the sport’s color barrier.

There is a similar movement afoot to permanently retire Roberto Clemente’s Number 21 as baseball’s first Hispanic star.

Clemente was an exceptional player. When I was a kid during the (ouch) 1960s and you recited the best players in the National League (the only league that existed as far as Cincinnati was concerned), it would always be (in this order) “(Willie) Mays, (Hank) Aaron, Clemente.” No one else was close, not even my beloved Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs (yes, I am one of those cursed Cub fans).

Clemente may be as complete a player as ever played the game. He certainly had “the five tools” in abundance, perhaps over a longer span than the players we would name before him as kids: He could run, field (12 Gold Gloves), throw (perhaps the most feared right fielder’s arm ever), hit (career batting average of .317), and hit for power. He collected his 3,000th base hit, making him a certainty for Baseball’s Hall of Fame, in 1972.

That 3,000th hit would be his last. Clemente, whose humanitarian efforts were legendary, died at age 38 in a plane crash while flying relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. The Hall of Fame waived its normal 5-year post-career waiting period and inducted Clemente into The Hall at its first opportunity.

Nevertheless, retiring Clemente’s number permanently, so that no one in baseball can ever wear Number 21 again, while a very reasonable thing to consider, is a tough call. I’m in favor of it, but I can understand those who would respectfully oppose it.

What I don’t understand is the position taken by Jackie Robinson’s daughter Sharon and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson (no relation to Jackie or Sharon):

“To my understanding, the purpose of retiring my father’s number is that what he did changed all of baseball, not only for African-Americans but also for Latinos, so I think that purpose has been met,” Robinson told the newspaper at a birthday celebration for her father in Times Square. “When you start retiring numbers across the board, for all different groups, you’re kind of diluting the original purpose.”

In September, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson made similar comments, saying baseball should find another way to honor Clemente.

Drew Sharp of The Detroit Free Press doesn’t agree with Sharon and Frank Robinson, and points to Jackie Robinson-Roberto Clemente parallels that should not be ignored:

….. she’s missing the point of what her father was all about.

If Jackie Robinson symbolized inclusion, then wouldn’t honoring his Hispanic equivalent only magnify Robinson’s importance?

Her criticism of the Clemente movement comes across as “this is ours, and you can’t share it.”

And isn’t that attitude a small reflection of the segregation her father valiantly fought nearly 60 years ago?

It’s ridiculous to debate who was braver or whose path toward history proved more perilous. Both should be appreciated for the uniqueness of their circumstances. And if that means having both of their numbers appear side-by-side at ballparks all over the majors, then that just shows how we continue to make gains as a melting pot.

….. The Hispanic influence ….. all started with Clemente, the first Latino superstar. He thought he was an outcast, mocked and demeaned because he didn’t quickly grasp English and basically was branded as a lesser light in God’s eyes.

Sound familiar?

But Clemente maintained a quiet dignity, never lashing out at his detractors because he understood the long-term and far-reaching consequences.

Sound familiar?

Did Jackie Robinson open the door for all people of color? Absolutely. His courage cut a swath through Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba as well as in the United States. But it’s awfully close-minded for Sharon Robinson to think that the modern-day disciples of Latin heritage should worship only at the altar of her father’s memory.

Clemente was as much if not more of a force behind the burgeoning numbers of Hispanics in the major leagues as Jackie Robinson.

I think that if Clemente gets the honor, baseball is perfectly capable, given the unique and awesome contributions of both men, of stopping at two permanently retired numbers.

The larger point: As happens time after time in race relations today, Sharon Robinson has needlessly injected controversy into a situation that should be thought through carefully. Let’s hope that Major League Baseball’s decision is handled better when it comes than its consideration of it has been handled so far.

If Clemente’s number is permanently retired, people will always recite baseball’s barrier-breaking pioneers as (in this order) “Robinson, Clemente.” Robinson’s accomplishments will not be diminished by Clemente’s inclusion, and there will be no disrespect to Clemente because his name is mentioned after Robinson’s.



  1. Tom,

    I guess I’m a curmudeon on this one. I think it is appropriate to honor both men, but I don’t like the whole business of retiring numbers league wide. There are many ways to recognize their accomplishments and contributions without saying their numbers will never be worn again.

    Comment by LargeBill — January 29, 2006 @ 11:55 am

  2. #1 Bill, I see your point, and I would expect that Clemente would be the end of it. I think the circumstances around their two situations will never come close to being replicated, so I really don’t think the idea will ever come up again.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 29, 2006 @ 12:15 pm

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