Editor’s Note: This text was originally published on September 7, 2016.
If Earl Smith had had a more or less adequate career in the majors, perhaps the right-field fence at PNC Park would have been 13 feet.
Smith, a 27-year-old center fielder, was the last player to wear No. 21 on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster before Roberto Clemente. The Puerto Rican, a rookie, opened the 1955 season with number 13, but took 21 (by the sum of the letters of his three names Roberto Clemente Walker) when Smith was discharged in May after 21! plate appearances and one hit in 16 official at-bats.
Smith never returned to the big leagues, but for the next few seasons, Clemente made sure no other Pirates used his number with a run in which he hit .317, shot 3,000 hits, and reinvented the way outfield was played. right with his magical fielding and powerful arm. His death on a humanitarian mission for the victims of the December 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua made him one of the most admired beings in the sports world and using his number was for many players a tribute to what they considered their role model.
There is no more revered number in Puerto Rican sport than Clemente’s 21, and it is possible that no Latino athlete has received more posthumous honors. Players like Carlos Delgado and Rubén Sierra wore it for most of their careers and Delgado paid him a spontaneous tribute during the first World Baseball Classic by asking for the mythical number to be withdrawn, preferring 25. In addition to Delgado, players like Sammy Sosa and Paul O’Neill, both right fielders, wore the number during their careers in honor of the Puerto Rican. In more recent days, it has also been used by Nick Markakis, a right fielder with good offensive qualities who, like Clemente, is trying to do his part to change the world through a humanitarian foundation.
“When I asked for 22 in Cincinnati as a rookie, veteran Dave Collins had it,” recalled Paul O’Neill, on his website www.pauloneill21.com, about how he selected 21. “I thought of Clemente because I saw him when he was coming. to Columbus to play the Columbus Jets in preseason exhibition games. There was a Pirates farm team in the ’60s and we had a lot of Clemente baseball cards. The Pirates had big stars besides him, like (Willie) Stargell, (Manny) Sanguillén, (Richie) Hebner, (Bill) Mazeroski. I admire Clemente because he was a World Series champion and he transcended the game as Jackie (Robinson) or Babe (Ruth). ”
The height of the right-field gate of the Pirates Stadium, raised to 21 feet, is just one of hundreds of tributes Clemente has received in Pittsburgh and in the majors after his death on December 31, 1972. There are close by. of 150 places around the world where Clemente is honored, including the main baseball stadiums in his native town of Carolina, the main baseball stadium in the city of Masaya, Nicaragua, the second most important indoor arena in Puerto Rico and hundreds of streets, schools and avenues in Nicaragua, the United States, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, among other countries.
That should come as no surprise to anyone in these countries with a rich baseball tradition, least of all in Nicaragua, where he is recognized as a national hero. It is also not surprising that in Pittsburgh there is the Roberto Clemente Museum, the Roberto Clemente Bridge, that the main statue in front of the new stadium is that of ‘The Great One’, that in the Bronx, New York, there is the Roberto Clemente Park, that in There is a Roberto Clemente Elementary School in Newark, there is a Roberto Clemente Middle School in Maryland, or the Roberto Clemente Community Academy operates in Chicago.
It is striking that the Mannhein team from the German baseball bundesliga plays at home at ‘Roberto Clemente Field’. And that in Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed slaves from the United States who returned to their roots, there is a daily coin with the face of Clemente.
Within months of his death, Commissioner Bowie Khun named the Baseball Commissioner’s award the Roberto Clemente Memorial Award, to recognize players who follow his example in humanitarian work. Players such as Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Al Kaline, Lou Brock and Dale Murphy and more recently Carlos Delgado, David Ortiz, Edgar Martínez, Markakis and Clayton Kershaw saw their social commitment recognized with the award, a bronze statuette.
“I just hope this inspires other players to do something for the people,” Ortiz told ESPNdeportes.com when he received the award in 2010. “Because there are a lot of people out there who need help.”
“Just being associated with someone like Roberto Clemente makes me feel honored and extremely grateful,” said Kershaw, who funded and helped build Hope’s Home orphanage in Zambia, among other projects.
Pittsburgh’s left-handed hitters would have preferred Smith to be 21 longer and Clemente to keep 13, as PNC Park’s new green monster would have been eight feet shorter. But the world celebrates and appreciates in many ways, despite the passing of the years, the contribution to humanity of this extraordinary athlete who today is a cause for celebration throughout baseball.