The Legend of 21

Featuring the historic photography of Donald Sparks

21 holds a special significance in baseball, and particularly in Puerto Rican pop culture. But what makes it so special? From an arithmetic perspective, it’s made up of 3 sets of 7. Both of those numbers have a huge degree of significance in many religions, Christianity in particular.

It’s also half of 42, Jackie Robinson’s number. Maybe hearing and seeing the number, and internalizing its structure in association with Roberto (whose faith was strong), is part of the phenomenon. But it may be even simpler: people love Roberto Clemente, and 21 is an immediately recognizable shorthand to express that admiration.

Photos: Courtesy

A Friend in Pittsburgh

Roberto had a close circle of friends, and perhaps the single closest in America was Phil Dorsey, a black man from Pittsburgh who played a number of vital roles for Roberto, from valet to babysitter. They met early in his days as a Pirate, and he set Roberto up with a place to stay with Stanley and Mamie Garland, who he would come to love dearly as his stateside “parents.”

A few days after the crash of Roberto’s plane, Phil was sitting outside the house with Luis Mayoral, another close friend of Roberto’s. They were in Luis’s car, watching folks coming and going to pay their respects and offer condolence to Vera. It was deep into the night, and Phil told a story about the number 21.

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phil's story

“I will never forget that before the 1955 season opened in Pittsburgh, Roberto and I went to the movies. While waiting for the movie to start, Roberto took a piece of paper and wrote down his full name: ‘Roberto Clemente Walker.’ And he told me that his name was made up of 21 letters and that he would ask the Pirates to give him that number.”

The details vary slightly depending on the source, but it’s a compelling scene and as good a reason as any for why Roberto jumped at the opportunity to change his number. On the official side, the 21 legend begins with an obscure center fielder named Earl Smith.

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early days

When Clemente was a rookie, his jersey was emblazoned with #13. If there could be an opposite number to 21, it may well be 13. Where 21 is elegant and subtle in its associations, 13 is crude and ugly, associated with a silly complex of superstitions and “bad luck.”

Earl Smith holds a place in baseball history as the player who wore 21 before Clemente, and he certainly didn’t have much luck in his brief time as a Pirate. Over the course of five games and exactly 21 plate appearances, Earl only hit the ball once, so he was sent back to the Minor Leagues. The number was given to Roberto, and an icon was born.

Rare photo of Roberto wearing number 13.
Photos: JCD Collection

The Next Step

Today, 21 is probably the single most famous number in Latin America. No other number is so automatically and permanently connected with a particular person and the values he lived out. Stateside, it’s one of the most important numbers in baseball culture, with many players at every level wearing it pride, and a long-running debate over whether it should be retired in the majors.

It has lent itself as a title for a comic book by Wilfred Santiago and a stage play by Luis Caballero. Public artwork featuring Roberto can be found dotted throughout the world. Children research him for school projects and declare him their hero. We couldn’t be prouder of that legacy.

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The Next Step
We need your help

It would be easy to simply capitalize off of Roberto’s legacy, but we are called to a higher goal.

Roberto’s example demands a response from us, and we are realizing his dream by doing what he did: reaching out to help the poor and the needy, and spreading his story and his passion for baseball far and wide.

With your help we can continue Roberto’s work into the future, impacting future generations with love and support.

Photos: Courtesy