Twenty-One. To some this is just a number. To Pittsburgh and the baseball community, that number is a legacy. On any given day you can walk down the street and see people sporting the number 21 on their backs, from kids to Moms, Dads, Grandpas, and Grandmas. It is a Pittsburgh tradition: The famous Pirates Right Fielder Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker wore the number 21.
Roberto Clemente's History
Clemente was born in Puerto Rico, and was the youngest of his seven siblings. He developed an interest for baseball during his youth when playing ball with neighboring kids. His love and talent for the sport led him to be recruited to play softball with the Sello Rojo team playing shortstop. By the young age of 16 he was already playing in Puerto Rico's amateur league. He began his professional career when he signed with the Cangrejeros de Santurce in 1952, during the season the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a contract with one of their Triple-A affiliates.
So began his famous American baseball career. He moved to Montreal to play with the Royals. At the time, he barely spoke any English and was assisted by infielder Chico Fernandez and pitchers Tommy Lasorda and Joe Black.
Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates
He finally debuted on the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 17th, 1955. At first, he didn't sport the famous 21. He wore the number 13. When it came time to change his number, he picked 21 because there are 21 letters in his full name: 'Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker'.
In the 1960 season Clemente led the league in batting averages and led the Pirates to a 95-59 record year, winning the NL pennant. He and his teammates defeated the New York Yankees in a long seven game series, Clemente with a batting average of .310. He earned a sport on the NL All-Star roster after his performance.
Then came the 1970 season, the last year of baseball that would ever be played at Forbes Field before moving to Three Rivers Stadium. In the final game at the field on June 28th, 1970, Clemente felt very emotional about the moving of stadiums, stating that "I spent half my life there."
To honor Clemente the Pirates declared July 24, 1970 as "Roberto Clemente Night". Tons of his Puerto Rican fans traveled to Three Rivers Stadium wearing their Clemente gear. The Pirates held a ceremony where Clemente received a scroll of 300,000 signatures from Puerto Rico with thousands of dollars being donated to charity work, at the request of Roberto Clemente. This season the Pirates won the NL East pennant but were eventually eliminated by the Cincinnati Reds.
The following season, Clemente lead the Prates to another World Series beating the Orioles. He received the World Series' Most Valuable Player Award after his amazing efforts.
In Clemente's final baseball season of his life he recorded his 3,000th hit in the 4th inning of the September 30th, 1972 game against the New York Mets. This would be his last regular season at-bat hit. His final game was October 11th, 1972 against the Cincinnati Red's Stadium.
Why Pittsburgh Loves Roberto Clemente
Clemente was not only known for his baseball talent, he was also known for giving back to the community. He was very involved in delivering relief packages to to the people of Managua, Nicaragua after they were affected by a earthquake. Clemente learned that some of the aid packages weren't making it to the victims so he accompanied the team to Nicaragua on the 4th relief flight on New Years Eve. The plane crashed due to mechanical errors, and Roberto Clemente and the four others on the plane died. The baseball world was forever changed.
Clemente is honored all through out Pittsburgh. A bridge is named after him, PNC Park has a statue dedicated to him, and there is a Roberto Clemente Museum. The Pirates and Major League Baseball do so much to honor this national hero. They have an award named after him "The Clemente Award" that is presented to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, and community involvement".
Roberto Clemente not only shaped the game of baseball, he shaped Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico. He supported his Latino community and Pittsburgh community with full efforts. To learn more about the rich historical connection of the Latino community to the sport of baseball, head over to Cafe con Leche's blog.
Five Ways to Celebrate Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh: