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Retire 21: Supporters Seek To Honor Baseball Legacy Of Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente Museum
Roberto Clemente's jersey number is retired in Pittsburgh, effort would retire it throughout MLB.

Fans of former Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente want the right-fielder’s jersey number 21 to become the second retired number in Major League Baseball history.

The “Great One” played for 18 seasons for the Pirates. He died in 1972 at the age of 38 when a plane carrying earthquake relief supplies from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua crashed into the ocean with him aboard.

The number 21 is already retired in Pittsburgh, and this isn’t the first attempt to retire it league-wide, but so far it has been the largest push. The first and only other retired number is 42, worn by Jackie Robinson, the African American second basemen who broke the color barrier by playing on the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

But supporters say Clemente represents a special case.

“We’re doing this because of the great humanitarian Roberto Clemente was, and how he died and how he was helping people," said Duane Rieder, curator and director of the Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville.

"Every day that he wasn’t playing baseball he was teaching kids. He spent the last month and a half of his life, before the plane crashed, giving clinics to kids around the island of Puerto Rico.” 

He was also a phenomenal baseball player, collecting 3,000 hits, more than 1,400 runs, and carrying a career batting average of .317.

He actually broke those barriers and represents everything we want to be, everything that baseball represents. - Julio Ricardo Varela, co-host of In The Thick podcast.

But, not everyone is in favor of the efforts. Critics say the designation would open the floodgates for other players’ jersey retirements.

“I mean Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball of all time both as a hitter and pitcher, his number’s not retired; Lou Gherig’s number is not retired, Willie Mays’s number is not retired,” said Jim O’Brien, Pittsburgh sports author and historian.

Backers of Retire 21 say the effort is about more than baseball. Many consider Clemente a role model, whose actions transcended the game.

Credit Roberto Clemente Museum

Why wouldn't baseball be bold enough to say ‘the history of anti-Latinoness based on race and ethnicity and language and cultural barriers has been just as ugly as the color barrier?’” said Julio Ricardo Varela, co-host of the In the Thick podcast.

“He actually broke those barriers and represents everything we want to be, everything that baseball represents.”

Those in opposition argue Clemente has already been commemorated appropriately. O’Brien pointed to the bridge with his name, a statue of him that stands outside of PNC Park and the Roberto Clemente award given by the MLB each year to a player who has done humanitarian work.

“I just think that we ought to quit bending over backwards to do that, he has been honored properly, he’s one of the greatest sports figures we’ve ever had in Pittsburgh,” said O’Brien.

Others says retiring 21 would degrade the honor extended only to Jackie Robinson. 

Varela disagreed and said that while Robinson opened the door for blacks in professional baseball, Clemente was a bridge, especially for Latino players.

“I think MLB would send a powerful message acknowledge this game is a Latin American game and Roberto Clemente is the godfather of the Latin American wing of baseball,” said Varela.

Latinos have become the largest minority group in baseball and it’s thanks to Clemente, according to Rob Ruck, a professor of sports history at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and other islands are not only the best source of talent baseball has seen, certainly since integration; they really do provide us with a disproportionate number of the best players,” said Ruck.

Credit Roberto Clemente Museum
When not playing, Roberto Clemente often taught clinics for children in his native Puerto Rico

But past efforts to retire 21 went nowhere. Former MLB Chairman Bud Selig was against it, as was Jackie Robinson’s family. Ruck said it often takes a lot to move Major League Baseball. But, he said with a new baseball commissioner in place, now may be the time.

“I think it’s going to happen. It might not end up getting retired this year, but I think we’ll get on the map. I think they’ll look at it at the end of the season and maybe retire it next year.”

The MLB and the Pirates did not respond to requests for comment. The Retire 21 effort is currently collecting signatures for a petition to send to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and building its social media and in-person campaigns.