On Sept. 9, 1972, Roberto Clemente was out of the lineup again during a season in which he dealt with a serious intestinal virus and strained tendons in both heels for long stretches.
But a few days later, the all-time Pirates great was back in the lineup for all three games of a series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field — and went 8-for-12 with one of his 10 home runs that season as the Pirates swept the Cubs.
The Cubs series sparked Clemente to a 22-for-62 (.355) finish that took him to exactly 3,000 career hits as the Pirates closed out another National League East title.
And barely two months later, he was gone — one of the five victims of a plane crash on New Year’s Eve during an attempt to deliver aid from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
It has taken nearly 48 years. But Major League Baseball finally seems on the verge of recognizing the full force and value of Clemente’s cultural legacy in the national’s oldest major professional sports league.
“Wearing No. 21 is going to be a big thing,” Cubs shortstop Javy Báez said. “Bigger than people think.”
Baseball has honored Clemente since 1973, when it renamed its humanitarian and community-service-based Commissioner’s Award for Clemente.
But 23 years after Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired throughout baseball, MLB on Wednesday celebrated Roberto Clemente Day, issuing commemorative uniform patches and allowing Puerto Rican-born players throughout MLB and — after individual requests — others to wear No. 21, including the entire Pirates roster.
“Obviously, this jersey is going to be in a special place in my house,” said Báez, who grew up idolizing one of the most revered figures in any field in Puerto Rico. “Hopefully, we can get more next year and the whole MLB will wear No. 21.”
Four Cubs in Wednesday’s lineup wore the number of the first Latin America player elected to the Hall of Fame, with catcher Victor Caratini, pitcher Yu Darvish and right-fielder Jason Heyward joining Báez.
“I didn’t know that this was actually going to happen this year,” said Heyward, the Cubs’ 2020 nominee for the Clemente award, who has been among those talking to officials and sponsors in and around the game to more prominently honor Clemente.
“I feel like this is a day that needs to be there,” Heyward said. “We talk about Jackie Robinson Day, talk about the fact that [he] opened the door for everyone. To me this is a huge piece of our game and our culture.”
Many expect No. 21 to be retired throughout MLB, perhaps as soon as next year.
“Why not?” Heyward said. “Forty-two is retired. Why not 21? … He left a mark.
“For me to be a nominee for the award this year, it’s all about humility and giving back and putting others before yourself,” Heyward added. “How can you not retire a number like that within our game?”