Every year when Roberto Clemente Day rolls around, the refrain comes back around that the legend’s No. 21 should be retired by Major League Baseball, the same honor given to Jackie Robinson and No. 42.
Five years ago, I wrote, “It’s a noble sentiment, putting Clemente alongside Jackie Robinson with uniform numbers honored forever. It would also be a mistake.” I argued that it would not only diminish the honor given to Robinson, whose number stands alone in league-wide retirement, but also diminish Clemente by making him “the other retired number.”
“Make No. 21 a living badge of honor, a special number worn only by those who wish to salute possibly the finest human being to play professional baseball,” I wrote. “A kid from Puerto Rico might grow up dreaming of wearing Clemente’s number. Let him. Open it up to past nominees for Clemente’s award. Use No. 21 not to make Clemente a bigger part of baseball history, but to bring his legacy into the future.”
They’re getting it right. As ESPN reported, for Wednesday’s 20th annual celebration of Clemente, all Puerto Rican players will be allowed to wear No. 21, as they were last year, with the choice also offered to all of this year’s Roberto Clemente Award nominees and the active players who have won the award. Other players also are allowed to request to wear 21.
The different policies for 42 and 21 fit the legacies of the Hall of Famers who wore them.
There could only be one Jackie Robinson — one first player to break the color barrier — and having his number retired, then worn by all on April 15, reflects Robinson’s importance to the entire baseball world. It was nice when players like Butch Huskey could wear 42 all year to honor Robinson, but then you’d also see it on, say, Scott Karl. Taking it out of general circulation was the right idea.
Clemente’s humanitarian legacy is something to strive for, and maybe 21 shouldn’t just be handed out to anyone who comes through and likes the way it looks, but it still makes sense to stop short of full retirement. The difference is the way that the use of the number on an everyday basis can honor Clemente and inspire others to follow in his footsteps, as well as Puerto Rican pride.
For this Roberto Clemente Day, MLB has nailed it. The league should stay on the same path, paying tribute to legends in a way that befits why each deserves such special recognition, honoring the past while looking to impact the future.