Calcaterra: Honoring Roberto Clemente is a complicated matter

From Craig Calcaterra at The National Pastime Museum on September 26, 2016:

On December 31, 1972, the plane in which Roberto Clemente rode with relief supplies for Nicaragua earthquake victims crashed into the waters just off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, shortly after takeoff, killing the baseball legend. A still-active baseball legend, it should be noted. Clemente had, three months before, notched his 3,000th and final hit as a Major Leaguer, but he had planned to play in 1973. His loss, then, was immediate, greatly felt, and was all the more wrenching. It was simultaneously inspiring given the humanitarian circumstances under which it occurred.

Major League Baseball acted immediately in a manner that showed how deeply the loss was felt. The five-year waiting period for induction into the Hall of Fame was waived for Clemente, and he was inducted a few short months after his death. Baseball likewise renamed its Commissioner’s Award, which was first given in 1971. Since then, the Major Leaguer who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team” has been honored with the Roberto Clemente Award. Those were hefty honors, and Clemente’s legacy and loss continue to be, respectively, honored and mourned to this day.

In recent years, however, some have sought additional recognition. Specifically, the family of Roberto Clemente, led by his widow, Vera Clemente, and his sons, Luis and Roberto Jr., have petitioned Major League Baseball to honor Clemente in the same way that it honored Jackie Robinson in 1997—by permanently retiring Clemente’s No. 21. Not just for the Pirates, but for all teams and for all time. In keeping with the Robinson precedent, it would follow that an appropriate day would be found on the baseball calendar on which all players and coaches would wear No. 21. Roberto Clemente Day. Probably August 18, which was Clemente’s birthday.

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Originally published: September 26, 2016. Last Updated: September 26, 2016.