A half century after his tragic death during a life-saving mission of mercy, we must honor Roberto Clemente’s legacy and permanently retire his No. 21
On the night before Christmas Eve 1972, a devastating 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Determined to deliver assistance directly to the Nicaraguan people, one man filled a planeload of supplies and accompanied the flight himself to ensure its safe delivery. On New Years Eve, 1972, the plane took off from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Shortly thereafter, engine failure caused the small plane to plunge into the Atlantic, killing all five on board.
Dying a tragic early death in service of others would be enough to warrant the highest praise. But when one considers that this is the same man who racked up 3,000 hits, an MVP award, and countless other accolades over an 18-year baseball career all while committing his life off the field to racial justice and charity, special honors are called for.
Roberto Clemente was the model player and social advocate, a champion of civil rights, and a star among his peers. When Clemente broke into the league with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955, three clubs of the then 16-team MLB still had never had a Black player in their history. Though Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, not every team was keen on integrating their clubhouses right away. Not only did Robinson break the color barrier for Black Americans, but he also paved the way for the Black diaspora.
As an Afro-Latino, Clemente dealt with segregation and Jim Crow laws when traveling with the team in the South, especially during spring training in Florida. Tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, Clemente rallied the few Black teammates he had and secured separate transportation for them so they could go where they pleased.
Clemente credited Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration for his assertiveness, arguing that Dr. King motivated marginalized people to “start saying what they would have liked to say for many years that nobody listened to.” Indeed, King and Clemente formed a personal bond, as Clemente marched in the civil rights protests of the 1960s and King visited Clemente on his farm in Puerto Rico. In the days following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Clemente successfully lobbied the Pirates not to play their Opening Day game until after King’s funeral.
As a player, Clemente was unrivaled in right field. His incredible bat-to-ball skills led him to win four batting titles and post a lifetime batting average of .317. In what would become the last regular season at-bat of his career, Clemente laced a double into the left-center field gap for the 3,000th hit of his career, becoming just the 11th player in the league’s century-long history to join that vaunted club. He went on to win 12 consecutive Gold Gloves. He led the Pirates to two World Series titles in 1960 and 1971, the latter of which he earned World Series MVP for his key home run in game seven to lift Pittsburgh over the Baltimore Orioles.
Upon his untimely death, Major League Baseball acted swiftly, posthumously electing Roberto Clemente to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, making him the first Latin American player to grace the halls of Cooperstown. They also introduced the Roberto Clemente Award given to one player each season who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
Today, more than a quarter of players in Major League Baseball hail from Latin American countries, and that number is expected to rise in the coming years, as the figures in the minors are even higher. For Twins star shortstop and Puerto Rico native Carlos Correa, much of the passion for baseball seen around Latin America can be traced back to Clemente’s influence. “Clemente is a figure for Latinos just like Jackie Robinson was for African-Americans.” From greats like Carlos Beltrán and Ivan Rodriguez to Edwin Díaz and Yadier Molina, most Puerto Rican players have de facto retired number 21 themselves by eschewing it out of respect.
Known as “the Great One,” no name in history commands more respect than Roberto Clemente’s in Latin American baseball circles. His humanitarian efforts, baseball stardom, and unapologetic pride in his Latin American heritage have etched his name in the annals of baseball history and elevated him to legendary status. For all these reasons, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of Clemente receiving the first-ever Presidential Citizens Medal, I urge Major League Baseball to retire No. 21, as MLB did with Jackie Robinson’s iconic No. 42 in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in professional sports. Clemente’s legacy has earned such recognition.
Espaillat represents northern Manhattan and parts of the Bronx in the U.S. House.