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.
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.
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
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.
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.