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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Should Roberto Clemente's Number Be Retired League-Wide?

Well, this is interesting if nothing else: New Jersey’s Senate is trying to pass a request that Bud Selig retire the uniform number 21 for all Major League teams. As someone who has written at length about retired uniform numbers, I may as well speak up about it.

First the obvious reaction; why is this a political matter requiring the New Jersey Senate, of all political bodies? I know, I could make jokes about “Obviously New Jersey doesn’t have other problems that need fixing”, but I'll leave that aside for the moment. Even if this is rather inconsequential matter from a political standpoint, if you can pass it quickly without it taking significant time and you have some stake in it, then by all means, knock yourself out, I suppose. I must say I’m more surprised it’s the New Jersey Senate, though. If it were Pennsylvania, I would see it as fan interest or speaking for constituents who are fans of the team or something. Also, I would wager it would pass much more quickly there. Let’s be honest; would any Pennsylvania legislator object to a motion requesting that Roberto Clemente be honored? I imagine voting it down, even if you objected to it, would be more trouble than it’s worth. In New Jersey, there’s the whole “Why do we care about sports teams in another state?” argument. It still does look like a rather silly issue, as a whole, but I digress.

The more important question is, Is this something that baseball should actually do? To be honest, I’m particularly lukewarm to this idea, and this is as a huge fan of Clemente’s. Part of it is the straight logistics; Clemente was not the first Latino player, or even the first Latino All-Star. Minnie Minoso beat Clemente to an All-Star team by almost a full decade (and he’s by no means the only one; Luis Aparicio, Chico Carrasquel, and Bobby Avila are some others who beat Clemente to the title). He was a great person, but there have been other great people who didn’t get their numbers retired league wide. Admittedly, not all of them gave their lives for great causes like Clemente, but there are cases like Lefty Brewer, who died while fighting fascism in World War II.

But then, there are also the wider, more abstract issues with league retirement. Jackie Robinson got his number retired league-wide because he was such a trail-blazer. Without Robinson, there wouldn’t even be Clemente. And then, I can also see the converse issue, where the special attention paid to Robinson in the form of league-wide number retirement has covered up other important players in the integration movement, like Larry Doby, who debuted the same season as Robinson. Retiring Clemente’s 21 league-wide feels almost like attempting a short-hand summary for the history of Major League Baseball’s integration, almost like MLB would be saying “Suddenly, Jackie Robinson, then Roberto Clemente, and then everything was all better”. 

And really, I know that sounds cynical on my part but I’m not sure that it’s too far off from what would happen. Already, MLB seems to be trying to use the league-wide retirement of 42 and Jackie Robinson Day as an attempt to do less work to remember the man. I much preferred their old method of picking a player when they requested it, as a reward for their behavior and a commemoration of Jackie Robinson’s actions.* You know, like how MLB has the Roberto Clemente Award to honor players for their service, as a reward for Clemente’s actions.**

*Besides, I feel like the enforced wearing of 42 for everyone could lead to some awkward moments. For example, Delmon Young wearing the number. Or, even more awkward, John Rocker (if it had been around while he was playing).
**This is just a side note; this article seems really negative so far, so I would like to point out that Roberto Clemente (and Jackie Robinson, for that matter) was really, really good. I feel like part of that might get overshadowed by the rest of his life at times. From his age 26 season on, he posted one year (somewhat ironically, his age 27 season) with an OPS+ below 136. Fangraphs credits him 91.3 WAR, including a stretch from 1964 to 1971 where he posted just one season with less than 6.5 WAR and averaged 7.1 WAR. And Total Zone ranks him as the fifth-best fielder ever (with 205 runs saved), after Brooks Robinson, Andruw Jones, Mark Belanger, and Ozzie Smith (and just ahead of Barry Bonds). That also means he’s the second-best outfielder ever.
So really, I guess that’s the long and short of it. I’m not sure retiring Clemente’s number league-wide really helps preserve his memory any better, especially with much more appropriate things like the Roberto Clemente Award in existence, and it may unfairly minimize the contributions of other important figures in baseball’s integration. I suppose those points are abstract enough that retiring his number league-wide wouldn’t be a huge mistake, but it does make it seem a little unnecessary.

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