As it slices through Newark, Route 21 cuts through one of the largest Puerto Rican communities outside of Puerto Rico.
So it only makes sense to name the highway – or at least a portion of it – after the great baseball player from Puerto Rico who wore the number 21 his entire 18-year career with the Pittsburg Pirates.
On a cloudy Friday alongside the busy state highway on Third Avenue, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz joined elected officials and others to unveil a sign designating a section of the roadway as the Roberto Clemente Memorial Highway.
But Ruiz, who sponsored the legislation to name the highway in honor of Clemente, was clear that it was for more than his legendary skills on the baseball field.
“Roberto Clemente is someone whose contributions went far beyond the world of sports. He was an inspiration to Latinos, but he was a trailblazer, a legacy maker and an inspiration to all,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “I am proud that this stretch of highway in Newark will forever bear his name.”
Ruiz was joined by Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and Councilman Luis Quintana, both of Puerto Rican heritage who sponsored a resolution in the City Council.
“I want to thank Sen. Ruiz for leading the effort to have this section of Route 21 named in honor of Roberto Clemente,” Ramos said. “Not only is he a hero to many Puerto Ricans, but he was a great American. I will always feel a sense of pride in my Puerto Rican heritage whenever I drive down this road.”
Ramos relayed the story about how Clemente led the effort to have Opening Day cancelled. It was April 8, 1968, just four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assisnated and one day before his funeral. Clemente, who had become an admirer of King, refused to play. Major League Baseball eventually gave in and moved opening day to April 10.
A host of other Puerto Rican elected officials also attended, including Councilman Carlos Gonzalez, Essex County Freeholder Robert Mercado along with Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, Council President Mildred Crump and Mayor Ras J. Baraka.
“It is only right and fitting to have a stretch of Route 21 named after Roberto Clemente, a man whose athletic feats were only matched by his humanitarian efforts," Baraka said. "His life’s example transcended the baseball field and his enduring spirit continues to impact and influence the lives of many in our great city.”
Clemente already enjoys one honor in Newark. In 2012, an 8-foot statue of Clemente was unveiled outside of Branch Brook Park on Bloomfield Avenue and Lake Street in Newark with money raised privately by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Liga Roberto Clemente de Newark, a Little League in Newark’s North Ward. The statue is similar to one by sculptor Susan Wagner outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
“Roberto Clemente will always have a special place in the heart of many Newarkers,” Quintana said. “Naming Route 21 after him is a great way for Newark to honor the legacy of a great American.”
Clemente was voted the Most Valuable Player in the 1971 World Series and was an acknowledged leader on the field.
Following the 1972 baseball season, Clemente organized a relief effort to provide emergency assistance to the victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake. In order to ensure that essential supplies reached those for whom they were intended, Clemente flew to Nicaragua on a cargo plane – a mission from which he would never return. On December 31, 1972, the plane carrying Roberto Clemente crashed into the sea, killing everyone on board.
Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming only the second player for whom the five-year mandatory waiting period was waived. In his honor, the Newark Bears retired the number 21 jersey in 2009 at a ceremony at Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium.
The bill (S-1462) was approved by the Senate and the Assembly in March 2016 and signed into law on June 30, 2016. Roberto Clemente Memorial Highway extends from milepost 3.90 to milepost 5.83 in Newark.