The rise of retired numbers

Last week presented two interesting articles at Beyond the Boxscore on the history of retiring numbers. The first charted the course of player number retirements over the years, and the second noted that the standards for player retirements had lowered over the years. Those columns did a good job covering the whats of retired numbers. I want to go a step further and look at the whys.

In particular, the first column caught my attention. Baseball number retirements began at a very slow pace, but then the rate of retirements suddenly shot up in the early 1970s and have remained roughly the same ever since. That’s curious. What caused the big upsurge in number retirements?

To begin, let’s look at the guys whose numbers were retired through 1970:

Team	Year	Number	Person
NYY	1939	4	Lou Gehrig
CIN	1940	5	Willard Hershberger
SFG	1944	11	Carl Hubbell
NYY	1948	3	Babe Ruth
SFG	1949	4	Mell Ott
NYY	1952	5	Joe DiMaggio
PIT	1954	1	Billy Meyer
PIT	1956	33	Honus Wagner
CLE	1957	19	Bob Feller
PHI	1962	36	Robin Roberts
STL	1963	6	Stan Musial
ATL	1965	21	Warren Spahn
HOU	1965	33	Jim Umbricht
CIN	1965	1	Fred Hutchinson
NYM	1965	37	Casey Stengel
NYY	1969	7	Mickey Mantle
ATL	1969	41	Eddie Mathews
CLE	1970	5	Lou Boudreau
NYY	1970	37	Casey Stengel

An interesting list. A few key points about it. First, Lou Gehrig is an appropriate person to have his number retired first. He was not only a great player—one who spent his entire career with the same team—but was also dying from a tragic disease. He’s just the sort of person for whom you’d expect an outpouring of sympathy.

Among people who know their baseball trivia, it’s fairly well known that Gehrig was the first retired number. But who knew the second player (and first National League man) was Willard Hershberger? He’s similar to Gehrig in that he spent his full career with the same team and died young. As a player, he was no Gehrig, to put it mildly.

However, he was the first—and still only—in-season suicide by an MLB player. The shocked Reds retired his number shortly after his death. (They reinstituted it shortly thereafter, though. The Reds later retired it a second time for Johnny Bench).

These first retirements highlight key themes that remained in the other early number retirements: Great play, and/or a sad tragedy. Houston’s Jim Umbricht died young, and Cincinnati manager Fred Hutchinson died of cancer not too long after guiding his team to the 1961 pennant. Most of the others were just franchise greats.

The oddest remaining picks were Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner and the Mets’ Casey Stengel. Wagner was as great as they come for a franchise, but his career predated uniform numbers. Aye, but after retiring he became a coach, and did have a number, so they retired his coaching number to honor his playing career. Hey, it’s the thought that counts.

Stengel and the Mets? On the face of it, that’s silly. The team was historically terrible when he managed him. But that’s not why his number was retired. He wasn’t retired as a Met but as a New Yorker, and putting Stengel’s number in retirement helped the Mets claim a bit of city history, which was important because they had very little themselves.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a more important and telling theme in the list of the first batch of retired numbers: How few teams had bothered to retire any numbers at all through 1970. Of the 24 teams in 1970, only 10 had ever retired any numbers.

Sure, four teams were new expansion squads that began in 1969 and four more began near the start of the decade. That said, only half of the pre-expansion 16 franchises had retired any numbers. Only two—count ‘em TWO AL clubs ha, the Yanks and Indians. Why were teams resisting the retiring of numbers?

A couple of reasons. First, keep this in mind: Uniform numbers only really began in the late 1920s. For anyone before then, there are no numbers. Boston couldn’t retire Tris Speaker‘s number, Detroit had no number to retire for Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson never wore a number with the Senators.

Actually, let’s look at that last one for a second: Johnson had no number when he played for the Senators, but he did when he managed them. Why not retire his number? That leads to the second reason number retiring was slow in emerging, franchise relocation.

Think for a second, why do teams retire a number in the first place? Yes, it’s to honor the player, but it’s more than that. It’s also for the fans and the club to show the player how much the people and franchise appreciate him and how much the former great means to them. Once a team moves, the memories don’t come with them automatically. Sure, Walter Johnson was a great player, but did he really mean that much to the people of Minnesota?

From 1953 to 1972, baseball witnessed eight different franchises moving a total of ten times (the A’s and Braves shifted twice each). Some changed their nicknames and virtually their entire identities. I don’t think the Orioles even acknowledge their previous existence as the St. Louis Browns. So pre-relocation players aren’t likely to be honored.

Heck, forget the list of early retired numbers. Even to this day there are almost no examples of teams retiring players from former cities. There are only three exceptions. First, some numbers are retired before the move. You can see that on the list above with Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves, and both Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell with the New York Giants.

Second, sometimes players from just before a move will be honored, especially if they were part of great teams. Most notably, the Dodgers have retired the numbers of several of the 1950s Brooklyn Boys of Summer.

Finally are the San Francisco Giants. They retired Bill Terry‘s number in 1984 and Monte Irvin‘s number last year despite neither ever playing in California.

So franchise relocation played a role, but there’s more to it than that since most pre-expansion clubs didn’t relocate, yet often didn’t retire numbers right away either. That was true of the Tigers, White Sox, Red Sox, and Cubs.

Let’s look at the Tigers. Paradoxically, the power of memory is what prevented the Tigers from memorializing any of their players by retiring one of their numbers. Specifically, it was the memory of Ty Cobb.

The franchise argued that they couldn’t retire anyone’s number if they weren’t going to retire a number for Ty Cobb, as the Georgia Peach was without question the most dominant player in franchise history. Cobb had no number, leaving the franchise before the days of numbered uniforms, and Cobb didn’t fade from memory into history for quite some time.

Put it this way: A lot of Tiger fans these days can remember the 1968 world championship season, and that season is actually closer to Cobb’s last season with Detroit than it is to 2011. As long as the Tigers played in the shadow of Cobb’s memory, they weren’t going to retire any other numbers.

Finally, by 1980 that memory began to recede, and the team had a new first-ballot Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with the team, Al Kaline. He wasn’t as great in his day as Cobb was in his, but he was great enough and played long enough after Cobb to overcome that memory.

Below is a list of the first number retired for each team:

Team	Year	Number	Person
NYY	1939	4	Lou Gehrig
CIN	1940	5	Willard Hershberger
SFG	1944	11	Carl Hubbell
PIT	1954	1	Billy Meyer
CLE	1957	19	Bob Feller
PHI	1962	36	Robin Roberts
STL	1963	6	Stan Musial
NYM	1965	37	Casey Stengel
HOU	1965	33	Jim Umbricht
ATL	1965	21	Warren Spahn
LAD	1972	42	Jackie Robinson
BAL	1972	20	Frank Robinson
MIN	1974	3	Harmon Killebrew
CWS	1975	4	Luke Appling
MIL	1976	44	Hank Aaron
DET	1980	6	Al Kaline
CHC	1982	14	Ernie Banks
CAL	1982	26	Gene Autry
BOX	1984	9	Joe Cronin
KCR	1987	10	Dick Howser
SDP	1989	6	Steve Garvey
OAK	1990	27	Catfish Hunter
FLO	1993	5	Carl Barger
DCN	1993	10	Rusty Staub
TEX	1996	34	Nolan Ryan
TBR	2000	12	Wade Boggs
ARI	2010	20	Luis Gonalez

Three teams haven’t retired numbers: the Rockies, Mariners, and Blue Jays.

This list also highlights one last reason for why the rate of retired numbers picked up by the early 1970s: Herd mentality. It started out as something only certain teams did, and the others didn’t. Once more and more franchises got into it, that put more pressure on the holdouts to go along with it. It became expected that all franchises got into the act. There’s really no solid reason why the White Sox didn’t retire any numbers until the mid-1970s. They just didn’t.

Once fans of all clubs come to expect their teams to honor the best and most beloved players with retired numbers, then it sets on a logic all its own. The quality of the worst player with a number retired can serve as powerful precedent for future retirees. Check that. It’s really not about worst player, more like least beloved. After all, retiring a person’s number isn’t just a matter of the quality of the player. It’s not even mostly about that. It’s about the memories the fans have of the player.

And it always helps if a person brings something to the table aside from his playing days. Heck, Johnny Pesky became the sixth Red Sox player ever to have his number retired not because anyone considers him the sixth-best Bostonian since they started putting numbers on uniforms, but because he was a franchise institution for several decades.

Similar logic helped third baseman-turned-radio color man Ron Santo get his number retired for the Cubs before Santo’s longtime teammate Fergie Jenkins did.

One related question comes to mind: Who are the best players for various clubs who don’t have their numbers retired? This is almost impossible to quantify because—as just noted above—it’s not merely about a player’s quality that gets his memorialized, but also the public opinion of him. That said, a player’s achievements are routinely the most important factor in determining if his number gets taken out of circulation.

So, below is a list of the leading WAR for a non-retired number player for each franchise. WAR refers to only what he did with the team. Also, we’re only looking at 1930-2011 because that’s the era of uniform numbers. Here they are, ordered from highest to lowest WAR:

Team	WAR	Name
SFG	121.6	Barry Bonds
STL	83.8	Albert Pujols
ATL	80.1	Chipper Jones
CIN	74.6	Pete Rose
BOX	71.5	Wade Boggs
NYY	70.1	Derek Jeter
DET	69.7	Lou Whitaker
SEA	67.5	Ken Griffey Jr.
PIT	64.6	Arky Vaughan
CHC	60.0	Sammy Sosa
COL	57.9	Todd Helton
TOR	53.6	Dave Stieb
OAK	52.5	Sal Bando
LAD	50.9	Willie Davis
HOU	49.4	Cesar Cedeno
LAA	49.2	Chuck Finley
TEX	48.6	Ivan Rodriguez
PHI	46.6	Bobby Abreu
CLE	46.5	Jim Thome
WSN	45.8	Steve Rogers
MIN	45.7	Bert Blyleven
ARI	45.1	Randy Johnson
CWS	44.9	Wilbur Wood
BAL	44.5	Mike Mussina
KCR	44.1	Kevin Appier
NYM	41.8	Jerry Koosmann
MIL	29.3	Cecil Cooper
FLA	29.1	Hanley Ramirez
SDP	28.1	Trevor Hoffman
TBD	26.1	Carl Crawford

One of the guys on the list, Bert Blyleven with the Twins, is already slated to have his number retired later this year. When that happens, Minnesota’s leader will become Brad Radke (41.4 WAR).

Most of these guys are on the list simply because they either recently retired or are still playing. Makes sense they’re up on top. Some are here because they’re suffering from some degree of disgrace, ranging from Pete Rose and his gambling to Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa and steroids. (That said, both of the latter are recent retirees, and who knows what turns the steroid debate will take in the future).

The listed player least likely to get his number retired is former Expos starter Steve Rogers. The Nats don’t spend much time recognizing their Montreal past, and he means nothing to the Washington fans.

Arky Vaughan of Pittsburgh might be one of the best players listed, but he’s still a long shot for number retirement. These days it’s very rare for any pre-1960s players to be so honored. Those men are slipping from memory to history and, thus, aren’t likely to be given a day in their honor. Vaughan played well before the 1960s.

The biggest surprises on the list might be that the Red Sox and Tigers haven’t retired the numbers of Wade Boggs and Lou Whitaker, respectively. Boggs had some scandals with his personal life, but so have a lot of other guys.

Both Boston and Detroit have a number of players that might have had their numbers retired by other teams. The Red Sox are the only team with three players who earned over 60 WAR with the franchise but haven’t had their numbers retired: Boggs, Roger Clemens, and Dwight Evans.

The Tigers are interesting in that most of their retired numbers come from guys who peaked before integration. They honor the numbers of Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Hal Newhouser from pre-Jackie Robinson days, but only Al Kaline and Willie Horton since then. They haven’t yet retired the numbers for Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich or Bill Freehan from the 1968 world champion squad or Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and Jack Morris from the 1984 World Series victors. That’s one franchise that seems more interested in honoring its history rather than fan memories.

References & Resources
The main source was the pair of recent Beyond the Boxscore articles.

Also coming in handy was this list of MLB-retired numbers.

Lastly, Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index allowed me to figure the best player (by WAR) for each team whose number was not yet retired.

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Comments

  1. Rib said...

    Cool article!  Could you comment, please, on San Diego retiring Steve Garvey and Tampa retiring Wade Boggs, as well as where the #5 for Carl Barger came from?

  2. Chris J. said...

    Rib,

    Garvey was a hero for the Pads in the 1984 NLCS, when they claimed the franchise’s first pennant.  Plus it’s close enough to LA that his Dodger mystique probably mattered.

    Boggs was a Tampa resident and the Rays were trying to cash in on all things Tampa in those early years.

    Carl Barger was the original GM for the Marlins, who died before their first Opening Day.  They retired the number of his favorite player (DiMaggio) in his honor since he really didn’t have a number of his own.

    Glad you liked the article.

  3. gdc said...

    Has Boggs been employed by another team as an instructor?  Might be why he doesn’t have ties with the Bosox that make them want to retire his number.
    My guess is that superstition would play a part with retiring Hershberger’s number to some extent, since the players probably didn’t get to request numbers and would want to wear it while there was still an association with him.
    (PS-fix “and first Nantional League man”)

  4. InnocentBystander said...

    Q: Why do teams retire #‘s more often now?
    A: $…owners realized these ceremonies sell tickets.

    Having shrunk this concept of this article to 2 sentences, I must say I really enjoyed it anyway.

  5. Michael D said...

    The Padres act like they did not retire Garvey’s number, or at least they did when I lived out there ten years ago.  They retired Randy Jones’s number some time in the 90s and they treated his number completely differently afterward.  Given Garvey’s personal issues, I think this is the poster child for not retiring a number too quickly.

  6. Geoff Young said...

    Garvey’s number being retired is a sore spot here in San Diego, and in fact, the city’s proximity to Los Angeles is actually a point against him. Ask many San Diegans what the “Dodger mystique” means to them and you’re likely to get an earful. Or to put it another way, Wrigley Field and U.S Cellular Field aren’t that far from each other either.

    Also, don’t expect Hoffman’s number to remain unretired much longer.

  7. Chris J. said...

    Innocent – good summation.

    Michael & Geoff – thanks for the info.  Makes sense they’d hide that one.

    J-Doug – no problem.

  8. Terry said...

    The Yankees retired 8 for catcher Bill Dickey, but only after it had already been reassigned, to catcher Yogi Berra. (The number 8 for catcher also mimics the practice used with the introduction of numbers, numbering players by where they batter in the batting order. Hence #3 Ruth, #4 Gehrig, etc. This is why even today you’ll find #1 frequently a leadoff hitter.)

    Anyway, then the Yankees retired 8 again, for Yogi Berra. So they have two 8’s up there, as well as 42 for Jackie Robinson. Yet the last player grandfathered to continue wearing 42 is Mirano Rivera, whose number will certainly be retired. So the Yankees will have two 42’s on the board.

    Finally, when they retire Jeter’s #2, and if they retire Joe Torre’s #6 (good chance!), the lowest available Yankees number will be #11, currently in use by Brett Gardner.

  9. Chris J. said...

    Terry – the Yanks actually retired #8 for Berra & Dickey at the same time: July 22, 1972 to honor both players simaltaneously.  The Cubs did something similar few years ago retiring #31 for Maddux & Jenkins at the same time.

  10. Mike M said...

    You have boston retiring Joe Cronins number first, but indicate it was #9 when it was actually #5.  Ted Williams wore #9 as most of america knows.

  11. Jim S said...

    The problem is both Williams and Cronin had their numbers retired on the same day. Williams number 9 and Cronin’s #4.

  12. Russ said...

    The Red Sox have a policy on retiring numbers.  The player must have at least 10 years with the team and be elected into the baseball hall of fame.  Only Pesky has the only number to be retired without being in the hall.

  13. Brian W. said...

    Adding to what Russ said, the Red Sox also require the player to retire with the team. To get around that, they have taken to signing one-day contracts with guys (Fisk). Nomar also did a one-day contract before retiring, but the future of his number (5) is uncertain. It hasn’t been used since he left; neither has Clemens’s #21.

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