It’s Time To Retire Number 21

John Steigerwald Contributor
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It’s time for Major League Baseball to retire number 21.

This should be the last season in which any Major League player wears Roberto Clemente’s number.

That’s right. Twenty-one should belong to Clemente the way 42 belongs to the great Jackie Robinson. His number was retired in April of 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson becoming the first black player in MLB history.

It was the right thing to do for too many reasons to count and it was one of the few major decisions made by Major League Baseball that received universal approval.

Robinson’s struggles and ultimate triumphs are well known. If there is ever a Mt. Rushmore for civil rights heroes, he’s on it, right up there with Martin Luther King.

(Clemente actually convinced some of his teammates to protest playing the Pirates’ home opener on April 8th, 1968 because of King’s funeral. The game was moved to April 10th.)

Clemente wasn’t the first black Latin American player in baseball.

He wasn’t even the first black Latin star.

Minnie Minoso was hitting .300 in the big leagues as early as 1951 with the Chicago White Sox.

Clemente was the first black Latin star to speak loudly about the discrimination that still existed for all black players, but especially the ones who “talked funny.”

Clemente said that he was treated like a “double nigger” because of the color of his skin and his Spanish accent.

It takes world class stupidity for a person, who can only speak one language, to question the intelligence of someone who’s trying to speak a second one, but Clemente dealt with it everyday from people in the street, his teammates, opponents and the media.

I remember a headline in a Pittsburgh newspaper, the morning after Clemente had been knocked down several times by opposing pitchers: “Let Me Peetch.”

Writers thought it was a good idea to quote him phonetically.

If you never saw him play, don’t expect to get a real appreciation for him by Googling his stats. He finished with 3,000 hits and a .317 batting average, but those are numbers.

You had to see him run the bases.

I watched him for 18 years and when I say I never saw him NOT run full speed to first base with his arms flailing and leaning into the bag, I mean never.

And that includes after a one-hopper back to the pitcher.

He has Gold Gloves and a Hall of Famer’s worth of assists, but you had to see him throw to really appreciate his arm.

I think the best word to describe it is ridiculous.

It’s been 42 years since Clemente played his last game and I’ve still never seen anyone throw like that. Indescribable would be another good word.

But none of that is why 21 should be retired by Major League Baseball.

Clemente’s number should be retired because of what he means to millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, where baseball is more popular than it is in the United States.

He wasn’t the pioneer that Robinson was but he dealt with as much, if not more abuse and humiliation because of where he came from, the color of his skin and the way he spoke.

He made no apologies for his heritage. He proudly flaunted it – considered “uppity” by lots of people, including many of his teammates.

Clemente was still playing at a high level in 1972 and was expected to be the Pirates’ right fielder in 1973. Everybody knows why he wasn’t.

After an earthquake devastated the city of Managua in Nicaragua, Clemente organized a campaign in Puerto Rico to send food and medical supplies to aid in the relief effort. When he heard that corrupt politicians were stealing what the Puerto Rican people had sent, he insisted on accompanying the next planeload.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff and Clemente’s body was never recovered.

Clemente is a Latin American hero. Hundreds of schools in the United States and Latin America are named after him.

Every September, Major League Baseball celebrates Roberto Clemente Day. Every year, the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team” is given the Roberto Clemente Award.

It’s time for one more honor for The Great One.

Retire 21.

Pittsburgh ex-TV sportscaster, columnist and talk show host John Steigerwald is the author of the Pittsburgh sports memoir, “Just Watch The Game.” Follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast at pittsburghpodcastnetwork.com

John Steigerwald