Robert Clemente’s Jersey Number Hasn’t Been Retired But Latino Players Don’t Wear It Out Of Respect
Few players have gained the respect and iconic status in baseball like Roberto Clemente have. A 15-time All-Star, 12-time Gold Glove Award winner, two-time World Series champion for the Pittsburgh Pirates and a member of the 3,000-hit club, Clemente has a resume that few can match. Unfortunately, Clemente died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, while helping with earthquake relief from his home of Puerto Rico to Nicaragua. A year later he became the first player from Latin America inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. These reasons alone have made Clemente a legend to so many Latino baseball players. It’s also why so many have refused to ever put on his No. 21 ever again out of respect to Clemente.
Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 is the only jersey number retired across baseball, but many Latino players want Clemente’s jersey to get the same honor.
As well as being great on the field, Clemente was an even better person off of it. He was a huge advocate for Latino players and fought against Jim Crow laws during his era. That advocacy is not lost on players today.
This is why the No. 21 has become, in many ways, a “sacred number” in baseball, especially to Puerto Rican players. According to Baseball Reference, out of the 235 Puerto Rico-born players who have appeared in an MLB game since Clemente’s death 47 years ago, only 16 have used the No. 21 — and none in the past five years.
While Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 is retired and celebrated every April 15th, many think the same should happen with Clemente. Coincidentally, Clemente debuted just two days after Robinson did on April 17, 1955.
“His body of work speaks volumes, so I do think that, as Jackie Robinson represents greatness in baseball and so much more, so does Roberto Clemente, particularly for Latinos all over the world,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said at an event last year honoring Clemente. “So I think it’s the right time to retire No. 21.”
While it’s been more 40 years since Clemente’s death, many feel now is a great time to honor him.
Latinos have become a growing force in the major leagues and now make up 30 percent of all baseball players. With this growing presence, many feel now is the right time to make Clemente’s jersey retire across baseball.
Despite multiple campaigns and calls for the retirement of the number, there has been little change on the subject. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has resisted the idea of retiring the number. He says the league already honors his legacy with the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to a player who demonstrates the values that Clemente displayed in his community.
While the No. 21 may not be officially retired, Latino baseball players have in their own special way.
While the Pirates are the only team to have officially retired Clemente’s jersey number, players have chosen to honor him in a different way: by choosing not to wear it all together.
Luis Clemente, the son of Roberto Clemente, has a different idea on honoring his father. He has called for not only a number retirement but a patch on the jersey or hat to be worn by the previous year’s Clemente Award winner. While he hasn’t had official talks with MLB about the proposal, there’s no doubt it would receive support among many Latino players.
“No Puerto Ricans will use the number because of Roberto Clemente,” Houston Astros shortstop, Carlos Correa, 24, told the New York Times. “The way I see it: Roberto Clemente is a figure for Latinos just like Jackie Robinson was for African-Americans. Clemente didn’t just break barriers but inspired other Latinos to get into baseball.”