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.