19to21: April 23, 2007
19 to 21
Yes, those are the numbers worn by Bob Feller, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Warren Spahn, Roberto Clemente, and others, it’s also, Baseball... Then and Now
News Item: April 15, 1997 – Jackie Robinson’s number is retired throughout Major League Baseball.
Major League Baseball’s attempts to make up for 50-odd years of segregation have taken many and varied turns since Jackie Robinson broke into the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lineup 60 years ago last week. During that time, MLB has done everything from what was originally Jim Crow-style admission to the Hall of Fame for Satchel Paige (bad idea) to having every major league team retire Robinson’s number – 42 (good idea). Retiring Robinson’s number across the board was a truly unique way of honoring a unique player, and whoever came up with the idea should be commended. (Nine players who were wearing 42 at the time were grandfathered, and if you can name any of them outside of Mariano Rivera without googling, you’re good.) And, whoever came up with the idea of allowing individual players to bring 42 out of retirement for one day to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s debut (actually, we know who that was… Ken Griffey, Jr.) also had a good idea, although entire teams wearing 42 does seem to be a little bit of overkill.
While remembering Robinson is the big story this April, along with the complementary issue of the decreasing number of African-Americans in baseball, the act of bringing 42 out of retirement also leads to the subject of retired numbers in general. It’s a discussion that tends to start with the Yankees, mainly because they retired the first number (guess who?) and have subsequently retired so many numbers that Yankee pitchers in a few years will be wearing triple digits. (Outside of Spring Training, have you ever seen a player wearing a three-digit number? Answer to come at the end of the column.) Still, there is more to baseball than the New York Yankees, and maybe some of you will be surprised at the legion of numbers, besides 42, that have been retired since July 4, 1939, a date that gives away the answer to the “first retired number” question. Just two months after he left the Yankee lineup after 2130 consecutive games, a dying Lou Gehrig (as was already known by that time) was honored at Yankee Stadium by having his number 4 retired. Since that time, no less than 142 other baseball figures (you can’t say “players” because they weren’t all players) have had numbers retired in their honor.
Yes, retiring numbers has become quite a cottage industry in the past 68 years or so. So much so that, if you want to be able to wear a retired number, you have to either have been playing major league baseball somewhere it didn’t rain or snow on April 15, or you have to go to www.MitchellandNess.com. Physically located at 1318 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, Mitchell and Ness has been in the sporting goods business since almost the 19th Century, 1904 to be exact. However, in the past couple of decades, they’ve become more famous as the purveyors of history -- vintage and throwback uniforms -- including Gehrig’s number 4, Robinson’s number 42, the Mick’s number 7 (the only 7 to be retired), Willie’s 24, etc. In fact, in 1986 MLB gave Mitchell and Ness permission to recreate historic baseball uniforms. And the rest is, as they say, history.
However, while Mitchell and Ness’ inventory sticks to Hall of Famers like Gehrig, Robinson, etc., there have been a lot of non-Hall of Famers who have had their numbers retired. In fact, there have been some so honored who didn’t even have numbers. Looking over the retired numbers list, it’s possible to break it down into four categories; A) Hall of Famers, B) good players or managers who played or managed for a long time for one team; C) individuals who died too young; and D) idiosyncratic retirings by individual teams. Although there is some overlap, as was the case with Gehrig, who fits in categories “A” and “C,” every one of the 143 honorees can be pigeonholed into one of these four categories.
The “A” group is the largest and, obviously, the best, with individuals like Messrs. Feller, Gwynn, Yount, Spahn and Clemente, all of who indeed wore 19 or 21. (In fact, there’s been a move to retire Clemente’s 21 across baseball, ala Robinson, since he meant as much to Latino players as Robinson did to African-Americans.) All the obvious stars are here; Aaron (44 – by two teams), Banks (14), Bench (5), Berra (8), Brett (5), Carlton (32), DiMaggio (5), Gibson (45), Greenberg (5 – some pretty good players had that number), Hubbell (11), Jackson (he was so good, two different teams retired two different numbers for him, 44 by the Yankees and 9 by the Athletics), Koufax (32… good number for lefty pitchers), Mathews (41), McCovey (44), Morgan (8), Musial (6), Roberts (36), F. Robinson (20, also by two teams), the Babe (3), Schmidt (20), Seaver (41), Teddy Ballgame (9) and a whole bunch more. In all, seven individuals in this category had their numbers retired by two teams – Aaron, Rod Carew, Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk, Jackson, F. Robby and Casey Stengel. Nolan Ryan, he of the seven no-hitters, had two different numbers (30 and 34) retired by three different teams – the Angels, Rangers and Astros. His fourth team, the Mets, probably don’t want to retire his number since they don’t want to be reminded that they traded him away for Jim Fregosi (whose 11 is retired by the Angels).
The “A” group also has six individuals who started play before numbers were used on uniforms, who have had, well, some kind of retirement honors foisted upon them, long after their passing. That would be Ty Cobb (Tigers), Grover Cleveland Alexander and Chuck Klein (Phillies), Christy Mathewson and John McGraw (Giants) and Rogers Hornsby (Cards). Of course, nothing is ever easy with the Phillies – Klein did play after numbers were introduced, and he ended up wearing no less than seven different numbers with the Phils; 3, 32, 36, 1, 26, 29 and 8. Apparently, they couldn’t decide which number to retire, although 3 was the first number he wore and the one he wore the most. Oddly; 1 (Richie Ashburn), 32 and 36 have all been retired by the Philadelphia National League ballclub on behalf of others. Then there’s the other Pennsylvania team, known since 1891 as the Pirates. Their all-time Hall of Famer, Honus Wagner, also played before numbers, but he also wore 33 when he came back to the team as a coach in the Depression Era. So that number has been retired for the Flying Dutchman.
Getting back to Fregosi, he qualifies under the “B” category, he was a good player strongly identified with one team – the Angels, since the Mets sure won’t claim him. Others in this group include;
- Harold Baines (3 by the White Sox)
- Ken Boyer (14 Cardinals)
- Jose Cruz (25 Astros)
- Andre Dawson (10 Expos/Nationals)
- Larry Dierker (49 Astros)
- Steve Garvey (6 Padres – the Dodgers haven’t retired his number)
- Ron Guidry (49 Yankees)
- Mel Harder (18 Indians)
- Gil Hodges (14 Mets – the Dodgers haven’t retired his number, either)
- Willie Horton (23 Tigers)
- Elston Howard (32 Yankees)
- Kent Hrbek (14 Twins)
- Randy Jones (35 Padres)
- Ted Kluszewski (18 Reds)
- Roger Maris (9 Yankees)
- Don Mattingly (23 Yankees)
- Minnie Minoso (9 White Sox)
- Dale Murphy (3 Braves)
- Tony Oliva (6 Twins)
- Billy Pierce (19 White Sox)
- Jimmie Reese (50 Angels, he was a coach, for goodness sakes)
- Ron Santo (10 Cubs… does this honor make up for not being in the Hall?)
- Mike Scott (33 Astros)
- Rusty Staub (10 Expos/Nationals)
- Frank White (20 Royals)
- Jimmy Wynn (24 Astros)
There are two clear patterns here. First, as noted, the Yankees love to retire numbers, 16 at last count, with Rivera’s 42 and Derek Jeter’s 2 (a move that would leave 6 as the only single digit number available to the Yanks) in line to be numbers 17 and 18. Second, teams that were created during the Expansion Era, and thus are less likely to have a coterie of Hall of Famers identified with them, tend to be guilty of honoring the good instead of the great. The Astros, Angels (Jimmie Reese?), Nationals, Padres and Twins especially come to mind although the White Sox have been around since 1901 and yet felt the need to retire Baines, Minoso and Pierce’s numbers. On the other hand, the Blue Jays and Mariners haven’t retired any numbers, an exercise in restraint that the Devil Rays should have followed before retiring Wade Boggs’ 12. The Red Sox haven’t even retired his number yet.
Under the “Done Too Soon” heading are the sad stories of Jim Gilliam (19 Dodgers), Dick Howser (10 Royals), Fred Hutchinson (1 Reds), Billy Meyer (1 Pirates), Thurman Munson (15 Yankees), Danny Murtaugh (40 Pirates), Johnny Oates (26 Rangers), Jim Umbricht (32 Astros) and Don Wilson (40 Astros). Oddly enough, most of these were coaches or managers at the time of their deaths. But, either way, retiring their numbers was a nice gesture for those they left behind.
Then the are the retirees that honor something different… the Angels holding out 26 for owner Gene Autry (the 26th man after the 25-man roster)… 5 for Marlins president Carl Barger… the Cards deciding the ever-popular 85 wouldn’t be worn any more in honor of Gussie Busch (that’s how old he was when “his” number was retired)… and, most idiosyncratic of all, the Indians have retired number 455, which was last worn by single A batboy Charlie Greenberg in Spring Training. In case you didn’t know, 455 is the number of consecutive sellouts the Indians had at Jacobs Field between 1995 and 2001.
With such a proliferation of no longer used numerals, it’s no surprise that more and more pitchers are wearing numbers in the 50s, 60s and 70s in the regular season… something you almost never saw 40 years ago, when Jim Bouton told about being given a hard time because his number 56 was too high. (Hey, how come the Yankees haven’t retired 56?) Just to throw in a little retired number trivia… Every number from 1 (seven teams no longer start at the beginning with their numbering) to 27 has been retired at least once, with the exception of (let’s all remember Ralph Branca) 13. Maybe A-Rod will be the first to sit down that supposedly unlucky combination. In this case though, it seems as if it’s more unlucky for the pitchers who have to face him. After inexplicably skipping 28, major league teams have also retired numbers from 29 to 37. Apparently, uniforms ending in 8 aren’t very popular unless it comes by itself (Stargell, Morgan, Berra, Carter, Ripken, Dickey and Yaz). Even the forties have had 13 numbers retired, including well over 2300 home runs among Messrs. Mathews, Aaron, Jackson and McCovey (the last three of whom all wore the home run hitters’ number – 44). Outside of Reese, Busch and the Cleveland fans, two “high” numbers are out of circulation, the Dodgers’ 53 (for Don Drysdale) and the White Sox’ 72 (for Carlton Fisk).
Although there’s nothing that can be done about retired number inflation, a suggestion to forestall further abuses might be to follow the Phillies’ pattern. Although they couldn’t decide what to do about Chuck Klein, their overall policy is a good one – only retire those numbers that have been worn by individuals already elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. A little restraint would seem to be called for in this regard, or else someone is going to end up like the punter on the 1963 West Virginia University football team (who did indeed wear number 100, in honor of the state’s Centennial.)