21 = 42?

This past weekend, MLB celebrated Jackie Robinson.  Many players wore the number 42, officially retired in all of MLB, in honor of Jackie.  It was really cool seeing all the historical tidbits and “Letters from Jackie” interstitials.  However, I’m not here to talk about Jackie. That’s been done quite a bit by others who write better than me.  I’m here to talk about number 21, Roberto Clemente.

Someone (non-minority) asked me if I would support retiring the number 21 in all of MLB, ala Jackie Robinson.  I asked “why?”  They looked at me kinda dumbfounded.  “Well duh,” he said, “he was the first Latin player in baseball.  He broke the color barrier for you Spanish people.”  At this point I just shook my head and cried.  Not because this guy had a great idea and had respect for “my people”. No, I cried because this guy, a supposed baseball fan, had no idea what he was talking about.  Let’s set the story straight:

Roberto Clemente – First Latino baseball player… False. That would be Esteban Bellán. 1871, Troy Haymakers.

Wait, you say, the Troy Haymakers weren’t an MLB team.  *sigh* fine.

Roberto Clemente – First Latino baseball player… False. That would be Luis Castro. 1902, Philadelphia Athletics.  (Yes, the A,s were in Philly before making a pit stop in Kansas City and then moving to Oakland.)

Roberto Clemente – First Puerto Rican baseball player… False. That would be Hiram Bithorn. 1942, Chicago Cubs.

Roberto Clemente – First Latino All-Star… False. That award goes to Alfonso Carrasquel. 1951, Shortstop for the American League.

Rookie of the Year? Luis Aparicio, 1956. (Coincidentally, the year after Clemente made his major league debut).

No-hitter? Roberto did many things.  Pitching was not one of them.

First Latino in a World Series? Not Roberto. Adolfo Luque would be that person. 1919.

First Latino to win the MVP? Zoilo Versalles, 1965. (Coincidence #2, the year before Clemente won his.)

First Latino World Series MVP? Roberto Clemente, 1971. Seriously.

First Latino Hall of Famer? Roberto Clemente, 1973. First ballot, special election.

Ok, I think I’ve made my point.  Roberto, as a great player as he was, really wasn’t a first in many things.  If you are going to retire his number, the question is why?  Do you retire it because he was one of the greatest Latino players out there? If you do that, you start going down a slippery slope.  What defines great?  You will start to run out of uniform numbers pretty quick.  You would have to retire all the numbers of the players in the hall of fame. Why? Well, they are great players, aren’t they? If they weren’t great then they wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.  Then you have to retire all the players that have over 3000 hits. Roberto had 3000 so anything above that is considered great.   Anyone that has multiple awards, won an MVP, played in multiple World Series or All-Star games would have their number retired because that would be great by Roberto Clemente standards.  You retire all those numbers then what?   Then baseball will look like Futurama with players wearing numbers like 7/8 or 10/16. 

You can’t retire his number because he was neither the first Latino nor the first Puerto Rican.  Are you going to retire Ichiro’s number because he was the first Asian player? Oh wait…

Ichiro Suzuki – First Asian baseball player… False. That would be Masanori Murakami. 1964, San Francisco Giants.

Ichiro Suzuki – First Japanese baseball player… False. Masanori, again.

No, I don’t think MLB should retire his number.  Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, said, “When you start retiring numbers across the board, for all different groups, you're kind of diluting the original purpose.”*

Roberto has been honored in many different ways. Schools and stadiums are named after him.  Even a day is set aside for him.  The Pirates have retired his number. Let’s keep it that way.  Let’s not dilute what Jackie has done and let’s respect what Roberto has done.  Leave #42 retired and leave #21 for those that want to wear the number in respect of Roberto.  Besides, I don’t want to have to give up my Yankees #21 jersey. C’mon you really didn’t think I was that big of a Paul O’Neill fan, did you?

(This is just a repost of blog entry I wrote a few years ago.  I just thought it would be appropriate to post again… with some minor changes.)


*photo from SI