Clemente and Robinson
There is a developing controversy that involves two of baseball’s most royal families. Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, does not want to see Major League Baseball retire the uniform number of Roberto Clemente for all teams, as was done for her father. Members of the Clemente family, including his two oldest sons, see it differently. While they respect the views of Sharon Robinson, they feel that their father’s number should be retired universally as a tribute to the way he fought for the rights of Latino players during a humanitarian life that was cut short by tragedy. The controversy hasn’t become ugly yet, but has the potential to create resentment between African-American and Latino baseball fans. Let’s hope that it doesn’t reach that stage.
Other than the Clemente family itself, I’m as big a fan of Clemente as anybody; I’ve written a number of articles and a lengthy book about Clemente, who was simply my favorite player growing up. Yet, I don’t think that Clemente’s number should be retired across the board. There is a fundamental difference in the cases between Clemente and Robinson. Clemente was not the first Latino to play in the major leagues—or even the first black Latino—while Robinson was the first African-American to cross the color barrier in the 20th century. Robinson’s status as a pioneer was clearly one of the main reasons why baseball chose to retire his uniform universally in 1997. I think this kind of thing—this retiring of uniform numbers for every team—can easily be overdone, and I believe would be in the case of Clemente. As much as Clemente means to Latino players of many generations, his social impact on the game was not the same as Jackie Robinson, whose accomplishments spurred the civil rights movement in the 1950s. No one in baseball has had that kind of effect, either before or since. That’s not an insult to Clemente; it’s simply a tribute to the impact that Robinson had from the 1940s until his premature death in 1972.
There may be another reason not to retire Clemente’s number in the way that it has been done for Robinson. A number of contemporary Latino players, such as Sammy Sosa, wear Clemente’s number as a sign of respect. Even though many of these younger Latinos never saw Clemente play, they still have great regard for his accomplishments. Wearing the same number is a nice touch; I like the gesture, which would be lost if Clemente’s number were permanently retired.
Like Robinson, Clemente has already been honored in a number of ways. The Pirates have long since retired his number 21 and also feature a beautiful bronze statue of “The Great One” outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Major League Baseball annually bestows a humanitarian award in Clemente’s honor. In addition, countless schools and parks across the country—and in Puerto Rico—have been named after Roberto. In my mind, those honors are sufficient to pay homage to one of the game’s greatest players and most admirable humanitarians. With all due respect to the man I consider my baseball hero, it is simply not necessary or appropriate to require that every major league team retire his uniform number.