Hall of Fame Reflections: It's Time to Retire #21 Universally

Roberto Clemente

What I love most about the modern game of baseball is how fans have access to news, events, and rumors 365 days a year. Currently, we are in the off-season phase for Hall of Fame selections; sparking many debates in regards to ballot voting and the choices made by the baseball writers who have votes.

I was very happy to see Mariano Rivera receive the honor of the first ever unanimous selection on the Hall of Fame ballot. He was more than deserving, and I will always remember what a devastating post-season force he was for the Yankees. It also felt like the proper way to give a final salute to the late, great Jackie Robinson, as Rivera was the last player to wear 42.

Following this over the last couple of days has sparked a debate within me, and is a debate I've seen others question: Why haven't we retired #21 league wide in honor of Roberto Clemente?

Let's examine the reasons for and against retiring the number 21. My list may not be complete and I tried to stay away from my personal feelings, not based in much logic or statistics, as a Pirates fan. Feel free to add other reasons in the comments section.


1) Statistics: The basis for the retirement of any jersey by any team is the on field dominance of the player. Clemente easily meets this mark: 3000 hits, .300+ career average, 12 gold glove awards, 15x All Star selection, 1969 League MVP, 4 batting titles, and the 1971 WS MVP along with the WS Title. Above all of this, he received special election status to go into the Hall of Fame only months after his death rather than waiting the normal 5 year period.

2) Impact on Society: Jackie Robinson's 42 is retired league wide from the lasting impact of breaking the color barrier to the sport. His participation is a milestone that would help provide inspiration to the civil rights era of this country.

Clemente helped popularize the sport within Latino communities, and led humanitarian missions as his fame grew. He is most honored today by MLB through the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player that exemplifies community and humanitarian involvement outside of the game of baseball. This legacy will not go away, and is part of the founding principles of many humanitarian and non-profit organizations throughout the United States.


Each of these arguments was based on an article published by Julio Ricardo Varela in ESPN. For those who read the article linked at the bottom, he is for the universal retirement of Clemente's jersey, however, he presents the opposing view points.

1) Robinson broke the color barrier. Clemente didn't "break a barrier" similar. He was not the first Latino ball player in baseball.

2) If you retire 21 universally, then you have to retire Ruth's 3 because he made the game of baseball global.

3) Latino ballplayers can wear 21 on the field as a way to honor his legacy.

4) This move would only cater to the Latino fan base.

Counter Arguments to the "against" argument:

1) We should universally retire jerseys for more than just breaking a color barrier. The deeper message of the move to retire all 42's to many, is that Robinson was bigger than baseball. He represented social change and how we as humans can make social progress. Robinson allowed baseball to be a catalyst and inspiration for the civil rights movement in America. Additionally, Clemente may not have been the first Latino ball player, but he was the first Latin American to be elected into the Hall of Fame.

Clemente's legacy is the model to show younger generations that fame should not stop you from helping others who are less fortunate. "Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth". These words transcend baseball.

That is what universally retired jersey numbers should represent: the men who's actions transcend the game of baseball.

2) Okay... retire Ruth's number. His name is universally recognized and put baseball on the map globally. The Yankees brand was built on his career. His sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees started a story line that would create one of the longest championship droughts and famed "curses" in sports history. He is as iconic as any professional athlete.

3) Right now any player can wear #21. Last year 18 players wore #21. Only one of them was born in Latin America: Wellington Castillo of the White Sox, born in the Dominican Republic. No Puerto Rican player wears 21. It's safe to assume that this is done out of respect for Clemente. The argument holds little weight.

4) False. Clemente is a figure that can appeal to anyone. First, Clemente himself identified not only Latino, but also as a Black Latino. One of the glaring gaps in the game of baseball right now is in the lack of young, African American ball players who are choosing basketball and football over baseball.

Beyond race and ethnicity, his message is one that can appeal to any human being with a conscious. That is why players of all races are nominated by MLB teams every year to receive the Clemente Award. To suggest that universal retirement of his number would only appeal to Latinos is to deny that he and his work was bigger than the game of baseball, and invalidate the award named in his honor.

It is time for Major League Baseball to do it: universally retire the #21 in honor of Roberto Clemente. Let me know what you think in the poll below.


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