Time for Clemente to take his place beside Robinson
Baseball should honor player by retiring his jersey
Roberto Clemente’s body was never recovered, but his legacies as a ballplayer and a humanitarian live on.
I’m not sure which one looms larger, at times.
Baseball’s first Latin American superstar died on a mission of mercy in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico nearly 38 years ago.
He was proud, passionate, outspoken. He refused to ignore inequities and indignities around him, and not just those that pertained to baseball, either.
When relief aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims fell into corrupt hands shortly after a Christmas Day disaster, Clemente boarded a pistonpowered aircraft filled with food, water and supplies, and a promise to deliver them personally. The 38-year-old star right fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates kissed his wife, Vera, and three young boys goodbye. It was New Year’s Eve 1972.
The ’72 baseball season had ended happily with Clemente collecting his 3,000th hit to become only the 11th major leaguer and first Latino player to reach the milestone.
Now he was aboard a DC-7 loaded down with relief aid, taking off from San Juan International Airport just after 9 p.m., and headed to the capital city of Managua, Nicaragua.
The plane climbed, banked once to the left, then went down in choppy waters less than two miles offshore.
The pilot had tried to radio for help … but too late.
What isn’t too late is for Major League Baseball to do the right thing and retire Clemente’s No. 21. Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by baseball in 1997.
Please, let’s not have another 50-year wait to make good on baseball history.
These two men faced similar struggles against racial prejudice in a sport that was slow to make amends, finally did, and now has what I believe is an obligation to display Nos. 42 and 21 side-by-side at every major league ballpark.
Both men exhibited a strong social conscience and an impenetrable set of ideals.
Both were human-rights advocates and trailblazers for racial equality.
Both endured death threats because of the color of their skin, as did Hank Aaron before breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
Clemente was supposed to die on Sept. 29, 1972 — one day before he collected hit No. 3,000. A letter sent anonymously to the Pirates, care of Clemente, read:
“On September 29th, Friday at Three Rivers Stadium in the top of the second inning you will be shot while playing right field.
P.S. Did you ever get shot with a shotgun before”
Clemente didn’t flinch. P.S. Clemente never flinched.
He was a .317 career hitter. Chiseled body. Regal mannerisms. A gazelle in right field. A cannon for an arm. All the cliches fit.
“If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you,” Clemente once said, “and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on Earth.” He lived by those words. Just as Jackie Robinson was the right man to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Clemente was a pioneer for proud Latinos a decade later.
Today, MLB rosters are roughly 28 percent Hispanic players, with a heavy Dominican Republic dominance. Clemente opened doors for Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans and Dominicans alike.
Latin American players of the ’50s and ’60s were frequently mocked for how they spoke English, criticized for their frequent flamboyance on the field, even accused of taking someone else’s job by playing on the cheap.
Clemente was the first Latin American player to (1) win a Most Valuable Player award, (2) crack the 3,000-hit barrier and (3) be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Only he and Lou Gehrig were exempted from Cooperstown’s five-year wait rule.
Clemente won four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves and two World Series rings, and always looked as if he slept on a bad pillow when he stepped to the plate or took his position in right field.
MLB annually recognizes one player for his off-field contributions with what was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973.
Now it’s time to take the next step. Baseball isn’t lily white today because of major breakthroughs by Nos. 42 and 21, each in his own unyielding way.