...a superstar, Hispanic or not
Isn't it time
race as a convenient label?
By MAURY ALLEN
There is a strong
movement among Hispanic politicians, some Latin ball players
and a large segment of the national Spanish-speaking fan base
of baseball to retire for all time the uniform number 21 worn
by the legendary Roberto Clemente.
This reeks of back door racism and Im sick of it. Im
sick of people being identified as African-American, Italian-American,
Irish-American, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Hindu.
Thats what the damn war in Iraq is all about and thats
about what all wars have always been all about.
The rookie manager of the New York Mets in 2005 is Willie Randolph.
He is the first African-American to manage a baseball
team in New York. So what. Hes a Brooklyn kid, a Yankee
star and a longtime Yankee coach. Thats a hell of a lot
more important than the fact that his great, great, great grandparents
were black slaves in South Carolina.
The Clemente move comes on the edges of a new campaign to name
the greatest Hispanic players in baseball, sort of a revolution
caused by no Hispanics, including Clemente, being named to the
1999 All-Century baseball team.
It took a long time for the Hispanic ancestry of one of the games
great stars, Ted Williams, to become clearly known. A Boston
writer, Leigh Montville, pointed out in his Williams biography
that the Splendid Splinter was born to a Mexican mother and an
Irish father. When Williams joined the Red Sox in 1939, he was
advised by player-manager Joe Cronin, a classic racist of his
time, to forget his Latin background when the mostly Irish Boston
press came a-calling.
Montvilles revelation about the Williams background
shocked a lot of people when the book was published a couple
of years ago.
There was no such problem with Clemente. He proudly talked of
his Puerto Rican heritage, his dreams of being a ball player
as a kid, the hours he spent watching big leaguers play winter
ball near his San Juan home and how proud he was to represent
his people in big league ball.
Clemente, of course, died a tragic death on December 31, 1972
after getting his 3000th hit that season and locking in a career
.317 average> He perished in the crash of an overloaded cargo
plane bringing relief supplies to hurricane-stricken Nicaragua.
One of the most touching photos ever seen were the pictures of
his teammates staring out over the water from the beach in hopes
of spotting their teammate.
He was an emotional baseball figure because of that tragic death
and is honored with a huge statue outside the Pittsburgh stadium
as well as immediate Hall of Fame induction.
Jackie Robinsons number 42 was retired (except for players
like Mariano Rivera still wearing it) in 1997 on the 50th anniversary
of his arrival in Brooklyn. He was the first African-American
in big league baseball in the 20th century.
Clemente was the not the first Latin player. Baseball has always
allowed Latins into the game, even a few dark-skinned players,
clearly showing that racism was more cultural and economic than
If Clementes number is retired as a bonus for Hispanic
players and fans, then Hank Greenbergs number, Hideki Matsuis
number, the Joe DiMaggio number 5 and the Lou Gehrig number 4
for German-Americans should also be put on the shelf.
Our founding fathers wrote, All Men Are Created Equal
(maybe they should have added so are all women but thats
a different column) and they never said "only those from
England." There were Dutch and French and Irish and Scots
and a few workers from Africa when this was all written.
They never singled out a nationality.
It has come to mind through this Clemente number retirement idea
that sportswriters have gone along with this racial gimmick,
myself included, long enough. Why should a fuss be made that
Willie Randolf is the first New York African-American manager
when his baseball background qualified him for the position.
Joe Torre is an Italian-American manager of the Yankees and I
cant recall seeing that tired phrase placed next to his
name in discussions of his team.
We talk of the first female American being elected president
in four years or the first Hispanic or the first non-native born
as we march on to 2008. It is all so absurd.
We should elect the best person we can find, the best leader,
the smartest, the kindest, the most creative. The biological
or genetic background of the candidate shouldnt matter.
It is what the person might do for us or to us in the future.
As we move deeper into the fifth century of the nations
existence, these labels, pejorative as given, should be eliminated
from the American psyche.
I take a vow now, as an Army of one, to fight this battle with
all the strength and courage I possess. I no longer will identify
a baseball player, a sports star, a budding athlete by race or
religion. I will describe them as best I can by their talent,
their brains, their efforts, their dedication and not by their
We call ourselves the Great Melting Pot. Lets melt all
those nationalistic and racial labels and move forward as a bonded
nation of many.
Katrina and Rita never selected a victim by nationality, race,
color or creed.
In that area, the storms had the right idea. Let us all tag along.
©2005 by Maury Allen. The Maury Allen caricature is ©2001
by Jim Hummel. The photo is courtesy of the official Roberto
Clemente website. This column first posted on Oct. 3, 2005.
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