Living in Pittsburgh for more than 30 years, it is impossible to not sense the spirit of Roberto Clemente surrounding you. Not just at PNC Park where his statue stands guard, nor crossing over the Allegheny River from Downtown on the bridge that bears his name. Roberto Clemente in death has impacted the community even more greatly than he did in life. Sadly, it took a heroic, selfless act for the blue-collared population of the area to embrace the man and his many missions.
When Clemente first came to Pittsburgh, after being acquired via the Rule 5 Draft from the Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, he already had two strikes againast him. Coming from Latin America and not speaking English fluently enough to make himself understood, he was the subject of ridicule by sports writers and cautious suspicion by a fan base that was not known for its social tolerance. And he was black in a city that historically kept African Americans residents at “safe” distances in specific neighborhoods. Never a person to shy away from apeaking his mind and heart, Clemente spoke out about social injustices and personal slights. Never once allowing any personal anguish affect his steady performance on the field. Clemente cherished his role as mentor to fellow Puerto Rican and Latin ballplayers. He led not by his talents-which were abundant-but by his sense of national pride and ethnic heritage.
Jackie Robinson had two major advantages blazing his trails Clemente never had. While Robinson suffered hatred and disrespect, as did generations of African Americans before him, ultimately he was a citizen of the United States. Yes, it took more than 400 years for laws and social mores to begin to bring about a greater sense of equality. Latino baseball players have never and still not have the legal rights and protections black ballplayers have earned. But the largest (and no doubt most satisfying) advantage Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and the first generation of African American ballplayers had was the ability to witness first-hand the advancements and improvements their sacrifices and struggles paved the way for. Roberto Clemente died living out his legacy and never really realized how his actions made the lives of the leagues of Latino players and communities that have benefitted from the shadows he cast.
Number 47 has rightly been retired by Major League Baseball and worn by every major league player who suits up for his team on Jackie Robinson Day. While Clemente’s Pittsburgh Pirates and select Puerto Rican players will wear Number 21 today in tribute to Roberto, it is time the ultimate tribute to Clemente the player, the man, and the humanitarian is paid by all of organized baseball. Retire Number 21 once and for all-time. No doubt Clemente would have preferred every player donate their time and resources to help people less fortunate every Roberto Clemente and calendar day. But as special as the Clemente leagacy is and shall ever remain, even Number 21 knew miracles did not happen without sacrifice and dedication.