When Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, baseball ceased to be just a game. In the dark years of McCarthyism, as his biographer Arnold Rampersad wrote, “only Jackie Robinson insisted day in and day out on challenging America on questions of race and justice.” As Martin Luther King said of Robinson, “He was a sit-inner before sit-ins. A freedom rider before freedom rides.” In 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s rookie season, MLB commissioner Bud Selig took the unprecedented step of retiring Robinson’s number, 42, from the league.
Now a new push is taking place to honor another legend in a similar way. An appeal has been made by Hispanics Across America (HAA) to retire the number 21 of Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente. A native of Puerto Rico, Clemente was not the game’s first Latino but its first breakout star. Clemente was a regular season and World Series MVP with 3,000 career hits, but he is especially revered for his efforts to support Latin American communities in the United States and abroad. Clemente’s almost Bolivarian reputation was cemented when he perished in a 1972 plane crash taking medical, food and clothing supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
But the effort to honor Clemente has met resistance from a surprising source: Jackie Robinson’s daughter Sharon. In January, she said, “To my understanding, the purpose of retiring my father’s number is that what he did changed all of baseball, not only for African-Americans but also for Latinos, so I think that purpose has been met. When you start retiring numbers across the board, for all different groups, you’re kind of diluting the original purpose.”
The place of blacks and Latinos in baseball is a highly sensitive one. Twenty years ago, African-Americans comprised 27 percent of the game’s players; today they represent just 8.9 percent. In 2005 the Houston Astros became the first team since the days of Robinson to make the World Series without one African-American player. Latinos, according to 2005 rosters, represent 37 percent of players. Honoring Clemente, the HAA feels, is a way of honoring the role they play in today’s game. HAA president Fernando Mateo responded to Sharon Robinson quite sharply, saying, “We as an organization and a community are surprised that Jackie Robinson’s daughter would publicly address the retirement of Roberto Clemente’s number or say it should not be retired. We believe it is self-serving of her to inject her personal views simply to keep her legendary father’s number the only one in retirement.”
Sergio Rodriguez, host of ESPN Radio’s Orlando Sports Caliente, told me, “This shouldn’t be about pitting one group of people against another. Racism in this country did not end the day Jackie Robinson put on a Dodger’s uniform. Robinson accomplished something phenomenal. But Roberto Clemente continued and carried that same achievement. People should realize that twenty years from now the majority of major league players are going to be Latino. Where did this all begin? It starts with Clemente. Every Latino superstar who plays now–Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado–owes this debt to Clemente. He is the one who broke down the doors to this modern era.”
The heroic circumstances of Clemente’s death merit special recognition, according to his supporters. As Rodriguez says, “Clemente was proud to be Puerto Rican, but even when he was alive he was about uplifting all of Latin America and the Latin American community. That’s why he died going to Nicaragua with supplies, a country far from his own. He was a Hall of Fame player and a better human being.”
Yet there are people who feel that Robinson holds a unique place in baseball history that needs to be honored uniquely. Richard Zamoff, who teaches a course at George Washington University called “Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream,” told me, “Jackie Robinson as a historical figure stands alone. While both Robinson and Clemente were trailblazers, Jackie knew from the beginning that he had the weight of an entire race on his shoulders. Clemente came to this role near the end of his baseball career, and he was one of many Latin players to share the trailblazing role. Perhaps an honor that would speak more directly to his contribution would be to give one player in each league the privilege of wearing number 21 on his uniform to honor Roberto Clemente’s legacy and his commitment to the ideals of national and international service.”
There are valid reasons to either retire Clemente’s number or honor him differently. The question both sides–and Major League Baseball–must wrestle with is: What would retiring Clemente’s number, in fact, accomplish? Would it move fans closer to accepting the contributions made by Latinos today? Would it counter a perceived anti-immigrant climate in baseball, where Latino players often feel mocked and marginalized? Would it move baseball fans closer to accepting the new demographics of the game? These are goals that undoubtedly Jackie Robinson would have supported in his life’s work to make baseball and the United States a more inclusive place.