Roberto, Jackie, And The Irresistible Urge To Devalue Honors

Eventually almost all possible ethics issues will be explored in baseball commentary, if you wait long enough. They will also be explored incompetently, since the average athlete or sports journalist isn’t much more astute in the field than the average citizen, which means that the analysis will be dominated by emotion, rationalizations, logical fallacies, historical ignorance, and a vacuum in ethics generally.

This phenomenon was on display yesterday, which was Roberto Clemente Day in Major League Baseball. There is no doubt that Clemente was one of baseball’s all-time greats, and 18-year veteran who played his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973,  the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be so honored. Clemente’s legacy and reputation is burnished by the fact that he died in a plane crash while trying to bring humanitarian relief to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was 38 years old.

Yesterday, in an orgy of Clemente love, sportswriters and players on the MLB satellite radio channel were arguing that Clemente’s uniform number, 21, should be retired by all teams like Jackie Robinson’s number, 42, was retired. The theory: Clemente was as much of a trail-blazer for Latin players as Robinson was for blacks.

This is, to be blunt (I’m feeling blunt today) crap.

No player in any sport in American sport history had the social, cultural and political impact of Jackie Robinson. No other player suffered and tolerated so many indignities, nor displayed such courage in pursuit of a unique dual mission: to integrate Major League Baseball, and to play the game brilliantly. Clemente himself, who was a black Puerto Rican, owed his career and life opportunities to Robinson, whose sacrifices also seeded the civil rights era. Clemente was one of the greatest Latin players—whether he was the greatest is subject to debate—but he was not even the first player from Puerto Rico. Yes, Clemente was an exemplary man, and an excellent role model. So were Lou Gehrig, Willy Mays, Hank Aaron and dozens of other players. The panel I listened to actually agreed that Clemente was a trailblazer for Spanish speaking players. If that’s the achievement to honor, I’d rather see more recognition of William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy, who not only was the first deaf professional baseball player, but who was responsible for the introduction of hand signals from coaches and managers. Perhaps we should have Jackie Robinson-like honors for trailblazers for the handicapped, like Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder, or Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher. When Ichiro Sazuki becomes the first Japanese player to be elected to the Hall of Fame, would his trial-blazing status be given honors equivalent to Robinson’s? I don’t recall any accounts of his being refused lodging at the team’s hotel.

What was on display in the discussion I heard was runaway virtue-signalling and disingenuous consensus. Who had the integrity to say, on Roberto Clemente Day, “Hey, come on. Let’s be serious here. Roberto was great, but he was no Jackie Robinson”? Nobody. How many participating were thinking that? I bet many, if not most of them. The list of terrible, half-baked, poorly conceived ideas that get accepted in similar dynamics is long and tragic.

Jackie Robinson’s contribution to the game, the culture, American society and human relations is unparalleled, and the level of his honor should be similarly unique. The affirmative action impulse in recognition and honors has to be resisted, or it will become impossible for history to permanently and appropriately recognize the special figures whose contributions were beneficent, massive, lasting and beyond debate. There aren’t that many who qualify, but for those who do, sentiment, admiration and tribalism should not be allowed to dilute their honors or significance.

14 thoughts on “Roberto, Jackie, And The Irresistible Urge To Devalue Honors

  1. I agree completely. I don’t think I have much to offer, except that I remember watching Clemente and it never occurred to me, at the time, he was other than an American baseball player. I never thought of him as Latin, or black, or anything other than a great player.

    But there have been many great players, and I’m convinced, as you are, that Clemente was not a trailblazer.

  2. Can’t honor an American black guy player if you don’t honor a black guy from a place like the D.R. or Puerto Rico or Venezuela. Oh no, can’t do that.

  3. Roberto Clemente was also Jewish and revered along with Hank Greenberg and Dandy Koufax. He was a great man and more than the sum of his parts would signify. But Jackie Robinson and Larry Dobie blazed trails and made us all better for being American.

  4. As coincidence would have it, within the last few days I made a few edits to the Branch Rickey article on Wikipedia for issues related to this subject. The introduction to the article read that Rickey “…was perhaps best known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing black player Jackie Robinson and for drafting the first Hispanic superstar, Roberto Clemente…” before going on to list Rickey’s other accomplishments. The twinning of Robinson and Clemente in this context was silly, because Rickey’s role in bringing Clemente to the majors was tiny in comparison to his role in the signing of Robinson. Also, the connection becomes significant only by defining Clemente as a “superstar” while a great player like Minnie Minoso, who undeniably predated Clemente, would be a mere “star.” Finally, placing Clemente in the introduction to the Rickey article implies that Rickey’s status was substantially enhanced by his association with Clemente. This would be difficult, as Rickey is easily the most important off-field figure in the history of the game.

    The article’s “Box” of bullet points also reported that Rickey, “Signed Roberto Clemente for the Pirates, opening Major League Baseball for Caribbean players.” There were, in fact, players from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico in major league ball nearly constantly beginning in 1910, including the great Cuban pitcher Dolf Luque. Clemente also did not open the majors for black Latins, again as evidenced by Minnie Minoso. In fact, Clemente was not even the ultimate trailblazer for the Pirates: the black Cuban outfielder Roman Mejias joined the team with Clemente in 1955, and Mejias started on Opening Day and through the first series, while Clemente did not play until the fourth game of the season.

    I’m actually not dismissive of the move to retire Clemente’s number. He may not have been a Robinson, but Robinson may not have been a Clemente, either. Ultimately, Jackie’s exertions benefited Jackie, while Roberto died in service to others. It seems appropriate to me that that service be honored by baseball, although I think it’s honored more when young players ask for No. 21.

      • Luis Aparicio. Rookie of the year 1956. MVP runner up in 1959. My favorite player on the Go Go White Sox, whose 1959 pennant (featuring a color team photo) was nailed in the wall above my bed by my Southside Chicago-born mother. From Venezuela. Still alive. 84.

        Roberto Clemente was a magnificent ball player and evidently a great guy, but he was not a trail blazer.

        • I may have overstated above. There are different types of trailblazing. Clemente was not the first anywhere, but he was a leader and largely broke down the presumption that Latin players could only be happy-go-lucky, malleable, or some sort of problem case.

          • Your comment was great and really interesting, LS. I was just recalling how when I was eight, I just liked Louie Aparicio. Didn’t really care where he was from. We used to all be just Americans back then. And by the way, aren’t Puerto Ricans Americans? As a kid growing up in Miami in the ‘fifties, at least half my friends and neighbors had Spanish surnames. We all considered each other Americans. All spoke English. No NPR Spanish accents. None of the kids with Spanish surnames rolled their Rs. Beautiful girl across the street, my brother’s age. Sandra De La Questa.Went by Sandy. As American as anyone even though her parents were from Nicaragua and her father worked at MIA as a mechanic for the Nicaraguan airline. It really seeed as if the melting pot was working. Now, I don’t know if it’s even on the burner.

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