Today and every year—beginning last season—on September 15 Major League Baseball and its respective 30 franchises honor the life and legacy of Roberto Clemente.
Clemente played 18 seasons in right field as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955-1972, becoming a Hall of Fame player and person during his time in Western Pennsylvania.
Known as “The Great One”, Clemente won 12 Gold Gloves, four batting titles, two World Series titles (1960, 1971)—earning MVP of the 1971 series—made 16 All-Star appearances, and collected the 1966 National League MVP awards with career highs in home runs (29) and RBI (119).
Clemente recorded an even 3,000 hits in his career during his final regular-season at-bat of the 1972 season in what would be Clemente’s last.
One of the most talented and professional players of his generation, Clemente became one of the most accomplished members of the baseball world but left an even greater and eternal impact on Latin American players.
After a devastating earthquake two days before Christmas in Nicaragua killed 7,000 people, Clemente was determined to assist in any way possible and help the people of Nicaragua to recover from the tragedy.
Clemente managed a Puerto Rican All-Star team in the Amateur Baseball World Series Tournament in Nicaragua only a month earlier.
A Puerto Rican native, Clemente packed a plane of supplies destined for Nicaragua on New Year’s Eve 1972, boarding the aircraft to ensure supplies would be received by those most in need after previous food and other aid were stolen before they could be distributed to the intended recipients.
The plane was packed in and overflowed with resources, ultimately resulting in too large of a load for the aircraft to support, sealing the fate of the Pirates’ most iconic figure.
Clemente and four others died tragically as the plane crashed into the ocean only a short time after takeoff. Roberto’s body was never found.
The news devastated the baseball world along with the people of Nicaragua and Puerto Rico, as Clemente died a hero in his selfless act of humanitarianism.
Clemente was subsequently elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown by a special election in 1973, bypassing any waiting period normally necessary for induction.
On September 9, 2020, every member of the Pirates donned #21 against the Chicago White Sox, the first time the number has been worn by a Pittsburgh player in the regular season since Clemente tipped his cap to the Three Rivers Stadium crowd after hit 3,000.
21 will once again be represented by the Bucs against the Reds on Wednesday, with the honor extending from just players of Puerto Rican descent to nominees and active winners of the Roberto Clemente Award. Players throughout the league can also request to wear Clemente’s number to pay their own homage and respect. All MLB uniforms will also contain a special commemorative patch.
The decision by MLB has moved Clemente’s legacy to the spotlight every mid-September, with the potential for increased recognition in the future.
Over the past 10 years, Pirates fans and supporters across baseball have raised awareness for the league to bestow upon Clemente a similar salute to Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947.
Clemente paved the way for Latin American players as the first Puerto Rican player inducted into the Hall of Fame and laid the groundwork for future generations to arrive in the United States and have success in pro baseball.
Clemente’s community service and dedication to the Pittsburgh and Puerto Rican communities set an example few and far between any other players outside of Robinson in the 152 years of Major League Baseball.
Baseball renamed the former Commissioner’s Awards after Clemente in 1973, but Clemente Day wasn’t established until 2002, with increased recognition the past two seasons as well.
The sport doesn’t need to put Clemente on the same pedestal as Robinson, but a tick below would suffice. Clemente deserves to be honored and eternally appreciated for opening doors to new possibilities for players who have impacted the game since Roberto’s passing.
The popular #Retire21 has flooded social media the past decade and has continued to help push efforts for Clemente’s number to be etched in stone alongside every other retired number in the organization.
It’s time to reward The Great One with one of the greatest honors in baseball, 21 universally retired forever, so when children in today’s age take their kids to the ballpark someday and they ask, “Who’s that No. 21 in black and gold writing?” Roberto Clemente will be always remembered as one of baseball’s greatest players and humans to ever walk the earth.