PITTSBURGH — Roberto Clemente’s legacy in Pittsburgh and his native Puerto Rico is secure. The club the Hall of Fame outfielder spent two decades playing for is trying to ensure that legacy – both on and off the field – is acknowledged regularly by the masses.
The team announced Tuesday that all Pittsburgh players and coaches will wear Clemente’s No. 21 when the Pirates host the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 9 at PNC Park, where there’s a statue honoring him outside the stadium and a bridge named for him beyond the outfield wall.
It’s a move Clemente’s family and the organization hope is a step toward having Major League Baseball retire his number as it did with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 in 1997, a half-century after Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier.
“I feel that this is just the beginning,” said Luis Clemente, the second of Clemente’s three sons. “That’s why it’s so important. It’s so exciting that it happened, that it was approved. It is a platform to continue to grow on it. So we’re very happy and thankful to MLB also for this.”
Clemente collected 3,000 hits during his 18-year career while helping the Pirates win a pair of World Series titles. He died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, at age 38 while attempting to bring humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The team retired Clemente’s number before the start of the 1973 season. That streak will end next week against the White Sox.
The importance of slipping a No. 21 jersey over his shoulders isn’t lost on current Pirates third base coach Joey Cora, a Puerto Rico native and former major leaguer.
“I’m getting goosebumps right now,” Cora said. “Wearing No. 21, as a Puerto Rican, as a Pirate, it means a lot. It’s a responsibility on that one, but hopefully I can wear it and make him proud with the fact that I’m wearing it and that we all are. As a Puerto Rican, it’s a little bit more special, obviously. To honor Roberto Clemente, not only the player but the person, it’s a huge, huge honor.”
While the drumbeat for finding a way to honor Clemente annually has been growing for years, it received a loud advocate when the Pirates hired manager Derek Shelton last fall. He approached owner Bob Nutting and president Travis Williams about having a one-day celebration, then connected with the Clemente family in hopes of building momentum.
“I think that it says something that the last time it was worn was in 1972 and it’s still probably the jersey that you see the most, it’s the number that you see the most,” Shelton said. “And you know, when people are out walking their dogs or doing things, there’s always a 21 around. I just think it’s an extremely important thing not only to honor Roberto the player but Roberto the humanitarian and the person, and I think we never lose sight of how those things work together.”
The plan is limited to this season for now, but the Pirates and the Clementes hope to make it a regular occurrence.
“Our hopes as an organization are that this is something that we’ll do every year,” Shelton said. “I would like to continue to do it. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to honor Roberto on Roberto Clemente Day.”
Roberto Clemente Jr. said the family has spoken to MLB about different ways to honor Clemente, with celebrating his number annually just one of them. He pointed out a couple of key years that are approaching: Next season is 2021, and 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Clemente’s passing.
“It’s not just retiring (the number) for the sake of retiring it,” Clemente Jr. said. “It is the right thing to do, but it should be done in such a way that it becomes more prestigious with that action. We have some ideas that we will be sharing. In the meantime, I think this program just got started. It’s moving in the right direction. At least the conversations are beginning.”