Wait, er, that's not right because he wasn't. Their basis: Clemente was the first Puerto Rican ballplayer.
Um, nope, he wasn't that either. How about this: their basis: Clemente was the first Hispanic star.
Damn, this is getting hard. I guess we're left with this: their reason for wanting to honor Clemente is to pander to an important New York City voting demographic.
Yes, that seems to fit nicely.
Look, I love Roberto Clemente. Fabulous ballplayer. An even better human being. But that can be said about a lot of players, and we don't go retiring their numbers all willy nilly. The best way to honor Clemente is to (a) not forget his accomplishments and, ultimately, his sacrifice; and (b) allow players who wish to honor his legacy to actually wear number 21 -- as many have done since he died -- rather than hang it up in ballparks to collect dust.
If they do go ahead and retire number 21 anyway? Look out, because the floodgates will open. Sure, no one would argue with honoring Hank Greenberg or whoever the first Jewish ballplayer was (Update: the judges will accept Lip Pike), but things are going to start looking silly when the Dutch lobby gets Bert Blyleven's number retired or the Canucks pull strings for Bill Phillips.
Update: Deaner from Blue Collar Baseball disagrees with me, as I imagine a lot of people do. Can't help it. I'm just not a big fan of gestures and symbolism and stuff, even when it's well-intentioned.
Update: I may not have Deaner, but I do have the New York Post:
Few players would merit such an honor more than Clemente - a Hall of Famer and a tireless humanitarian. Indeed, he was killed in a 1972 plane crash while delivering disaster-relief aid in earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
But only one number has ever been retired league-wide: Jackie Robinson's 42.
That decision was announced on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking the sport's color barrier - suggesting that baseball knows how best to honor its groundbreaking players.
And it does: The league presents the Roberto Clemente Award every year to the player who best embodies Clemente's humanitarian spirit.
But the council, forever in search of ways to justify itself, now figures it knows better.
It's simply beyond comprehension.
Get a life, councilpersons.