There’s a growing movement among current and former Puerto Rican-born Major League Baseball players to retire the No. 21 throughout the sport. The digits were once worn by the late Roberto Clemente.
Clemente was killed when his overloaded and ill-equipped cargo plane plunged into the waters off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as he was taking supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. He was 38 years old.
Clemente, a right-handed hitter with tremendous skills as a right fielder, had smacked his 3,000th hit in his final at bat on the final day of the 1972 regular season.
In 1971, the Pirates won the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, and Clemente had 12 hits, batting .414 with two homers in the seven games. Less than a year after his death, he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election, the first Puerto Rican to earn the honor.
How deeply ingrained is the legend of Clemente in Puerto Rico? The tales of his life and death are passed down on the island from father to son, said Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez.
Chicago Cubs catcher Victor Caratini, a Puerto Rican native who started playing baseball when he was 5 years old, said through an interpreter he was taught about Clemente in elementary school.
“To give you an example of what kind of an impact he had on Puerto Rico and the game of baseball, even in the schools they teach about Roberto Clemente,” he said. “We had sections entirely dedicated to him and what he did not only to baseball, but to the humanitarian side of things.”
Baseball has a Roberto Clemente Humanitarian Award, bestowed every World Series upon a player who has given back to the community.
“There’s only one Roberto Clemente award,” said Alex Cora, a former player and current manager of the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. “As far as retiring the number, I know what he means to my country; I know what he means to the Latino players; I hope it happens. It’d mean a lot to that community.”
The movement to do so has been growing in recent years — long after then-Commissioner Bud Selig retired Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 throughout baseball in 1997. That was the 50th anniversary of Robinson shattering the color barrier in 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
There is no doubt about Robinson’s lasting impact on the sport; he opened the door for every African-American player who followed him.
But when Clemente died during a humanitarian mission, it was something that had never happened before and has not happened since.
“I was and am a huge fan of Mr. Robinson,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon when asked about retiring Clemente’s number. “Obviously, that was an easy one to determine. Clemente was also one of my favorite players as a kid growing up. At that time I really didn’t understand what he meant to the people there. But as you get older and learn you come to see the significance.
“It’s very interesting. From my thin slice I would say, ‘Yes, let’s do something like that. It would mean a lot to a lot of people who are really significant in our game.’”
Why Clemente? Why Nicaragua?
The baseball player had an affinity for Nicaragua, having once played winter ball there. He managed a team of Puerto Rican All-Stars in an Amateur World Series tournament the previous November.
On Dec. 23, 1972, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale devastated the country, killing 7,000 people and leaving more than 250,000 homeless.
In the wake of the disaster, Clemente accepted the honorary chairmanship of a Nicaraguan earthquake relief organization, raising $150,000 and gathering 26 tons of food, clothing and medical supplies. Those supplies were shipped by sea and air to Managua.
When reports emerged that the country’s dictator, General Anastacio Somoza, wasn’t allowing those supplies to leave the docks and get to the people who needed them, Clemente decided he needed to travel to Managua to supervise the distribution.
That’s why Clemente was aboard the plane, carrying a fresh load of supplies, on that ill-fated night.
The flight left at 9 p.m., some 17 hours late, haphazardly loaded and overpacked. On board when the plane went down was Clemente, the pilot, an engineer and a radio journalist.
Compounding the myth of what happened that evening, neither Clemente’s body nor one thread of his clothing were ever salvaged from the shark-infested waters off the coast of the San Juan Airport.
Latin American influence
The role of Latin American players in baseball is increasing. On this past opening day, MLB reported 28.5 percent, or 251 players of the 1,200 on Major League rosters, were internationally born. Of those, 220 were from Latin America, including 18 from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Thus far, current Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has resisted the Clemente number retirement movement. Manfred said he believes that the Roberto Clemente Award, presented annually to the player who demonstrates Clemente's commitment to community and understanding of the value of helping others, may be the most important in baseball.
But retiring No. 21 would be something very special.
“If it doesn’t happen, there’s an award there that’s very prestigious,” Cora said. “It’s a very special one. Seeing (St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina) get it last year because he was doing something in Colombia, that meant a lot to me. MLB is very considerate about that and it means a lot to the players.”
Cora is very conscious about his community, declining an invitation from President Donald Trump to attend a Rose Garden celebration honoring his 2018 World Series-winning Red Sox.
Cora’s reason: The U.S. had not followed through on sending billions of dollars of aid to Puerto Rico, which is recovering from the direct hit it took from Hurricane Maria in September 2017. A disaster relief bill was signed by the president on June 6, nearly two years after the storms.
Cora was so serious about taking care of Puerto Rico he had a stipulation written into his contract when he was hired by the Red Sox that the team made a major contribution of goods and services to his hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico.
The Red Sox talked about his prospective contract, his housing, his perks. That wasn’t good enough for Cora, who responded: “That’s all cool. But here’s what I want: I want a plane full of supplies for my home town. If you can do that, I’m the manager of the Boston Red Sox.”
Cora signed for $800,000, a contract that was extended after his Red Sox defeated the Dodgers in last year’s World Series.
While the deal may have been one of the lowest for a manager in MLB, the Red Sox made good on their promise. On Jan. 31, 2018, a JetBlue cargo plane delivered 10 tons of supplies to Caguas along with a donation of $200,000.
While waiting for MLB to retire Clemente’s number, many Puerto Rican players have taken to self-retiring it by refusing to wear that hallowed number.
“Yeah, that’s something we do back home,” Cora said.
Three teams already have retired No. 21. The Pirates retired Clemente’s number. The Atlanta Braves retired No. 21 in honor of Warren Spahn, and the Cleveland Indians retired it to honor Bob Lemon. Both are Hall of Fame pitchers.
Currently, 13 of the 30 clubs have a player wearing No. 21. The Red Sox are not among them.
While that hardly qualifies as a movement, to some it’s a sign the game is heading in the right direction.
“It’s just a case-by-case basis for us Puerto Ricans,” Caratini said. “A lot of us don’t use it because he’s a legend. Other people use it because they want to honor a great man. But I do think it should be retired.”
Barry M. Bloom has been a baseball writer since 1976, and a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1992. His sometimes award-winning national reports and columns appeared on MLB.com for the past 16 years, until recently. He’s now a contributing columnist for Forbes.com.