By Marty Appel, September 29, 2016
Ten years after being fired by the New York Yankees (after 10 pennants in 12 years as manager), Casey Stengel was in no mood to accept their Old Timers’ Day invitations. He was still bitter, and he turned down all previous invitations from the team.
But the 1970 invitation was different. The team’s PR director Bob Fishel included a personal note suggesting that the team wished to retire his No. 37.
Casey understood the culture of the game, and was blown away by the enormity of this honor. It was the deciding factor in his decision to end his boycott and make his long-awaited return.
“Enormity of the honor” may seem a bit far-fetched today. There are over 180 retired uniform numbers in Major League Baseball at this time. Some feel the practice has lost its special place in the game’s culture.
Still, for fans and teammates, it’s a feel-good event, surrounded by a sense of no harm done. And so even if the bar gets lowered, on it goes.
When the Yankees notified Stengel that his No. 37 would be retired, there were only four others in Yankee history—Babe Ruth (3—in 1948), Lou Gehrig (4—in 1939), Joe DiMaggio (5—in 1952), and Mickey Mantle (7—in 1969). (Casey did not attend the Mantle ceremony). All these years later, many would argue that the Yankees could have stopped at four.
In fact, in all of Major League Baseball, only 13 other numbers had been retired at that point, including Casey’s own 37 with the New York Mets when he retired in 1965.
The others were: No. 1—Billy Meyer, Pittsburgh manager, 1954; No. 1—Fred Hutchinson, Cincinnati manager, 1965; No. 4—Mel Ott, New York Giants, 1948; No. 6—Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals, 1963; No. 11—Carl Hubbell, New York Giants, 1944; No. 19—Bob Feller, Cleveland, 1956; No. 21—Warren Spahn, Milwaukee Braves, 1965; No. 32—Jim Umbricht, Houston, 1965; No. 33—Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh, 1952; No. 36—Robin Roberts, Philadelphia Phillies, 1962; and No. 41—Ed Mathews, Milwaukee Braves, 1969.
Wagner’s was his coaching number—he wore no number as a player. Roberts was still an active player in spring training with the Yankees. But he never pitched for them, and went on to hurl for Baltimore instead. Umbricht died at 33 after pitching two seasons for the Houston Colt 45’s.
Ted Williams didn’t have his No. 9 retired by the Red Sox until 1984.
Of course, no players wore numbers before 1929, so the early immortals of the game—Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Cy Young, et al., had no number to retire.
The New York Yankees have the most retired uniform numbers—an honor that began with Lou Gehrig’s #4 in 1939, followed in 1948 by the #3 of Babe Ruth (both shown here as Ruth crosses the plate after a home run in Game 1 of the 1932 World Series).
The retirement of a dying Lou Gehrig’s No. 4 started it all. It took place on the memorable Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, July 4, 1939, when he delivered his “Luckiest Man” speech. Because the very issuance of numbers was only 10 years old, it is not surprising that this would be the start. But the National Hockey League had actually gotten there first, when the Toronto Maple Leafs retired Ace Bailey’s No. 6 and the Boston Bruins retired Lionel Hitchman’s No. 3—both in 1934.
Some college football numbers were also retired along the way. Fans today forget that college football once rivaled Major League Baseball as America’s favorite sport.
The Yankees’ retirement of Casey’s No. 37 sort of opened the doors for a wave of retirements in the ‘70s—some 27—including Nellie Fox and Luke Appling (Chicago White Sox); Earl Averill and Lou Boudreau (Cleveland); Harmon Killebrew (Minnesota); Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson (Baltimore); Gil Hodges (New York Mets); Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock (St. Louis Cardinals); Jackie Robinson, Jim Gilliam, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, and Walt Alston (Dodgers); Pie Traynor, Danny Murtaugh, and Roberto Clemente (Pittsburgh); Willie Mays (Giants); Don Wilson (Houston); and Hank Aaron (both the Braves and the Brewers). The Yankees followed Stengel with Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra (who both wore No. 8), Whitey Ford, and, at decade’s end, Thurman Munson. Now, the doors were wide open for making this a normal part of the game, a continuing honor to mesh with other accolades like the Baseball Hall of Fame, team Hall of Fame, plaques, and statues.
While some fans began to bemoan the proliferation, the decision resided not in the hands of a writers association or even a fan vote, but rather with the owners of the teams. So there were no hard and fast rules, but the decisions generally pleased the public, as popularity was the greatest criteria. And, of course, the retirement ceremony meant an extra promotion day on the team calendar.
From afar, fans could not always understand the local passion for a player and were at times shocked by the announcement. This was never more evident, it seems, than with the decision by the White Sox to retire Harold Baines’s No. 3 on August 20, 1989.
Baines was a four-time All-Star, then in his 10th season with the Sox. On July 29, he was traded to Texas in a deal that brought Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez to Chicago. He was hitting .321 at the time, his career high. He returned to Chicago with the Rangers for a series on August 17–20, and that Sunday, the 20th, the team retired his number before 27,000 fans, their biggest crowd since Opening Day. To many fans who didn’t follow the White Sox daily, it was a collective “Harold Baines?”
“It was certainly unconventional for the White Sox after trading him in mid-career,” notes Art Berke, a former communications official at MLB, ABC Sports, and Sports Illustrated—and a lifelong White Sox fan. “[But] it wasn’t entirely shocking in light of Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s appreciation for and uncommon loyalty to his players. It’s also important to understand the retirement in the context of the White Sox franchise, which simply doesn’t boast the quantity of elite players as some other clubs.”
It turned out that it was indeed mid-career. Baines played another 12 seasons, and twice returned to the Sox—1996–97, and 2000–01, when his number was “unretired” so he could wear it again. His popularity remained ever high, even if his career fell short of Hall of Fame status (.289 with 2,866 hits).
The White Sox broke the mold again in 2010 when their No. 11—retired for Luis Aparicio—was “unretired” (with Aparicio’s permission) so that fellow Venezuelan Omar Vizquel could wear it for his final seasons.
There are other oddities. Four Montreal Expos—Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Gary Carter, and Andre Dawson—had their numbers retired, only to have them “unretired” when the franchise moved to Washington.
Cincinnati retired catcher Willard Hershberger’s No. 5 in 1940 after his suicide, but decided “never mind” two years later. It was later retired by the Reds after it was worn by Johnny Bench.
Sometimes numbers are uncirculated but not formally retired. Derek Jeter’s No. 2 will certainly not be given to another Yankee, with the number to be officially retired one day soon. Fernando Valenzuela’s No. 34 has never been worn by a Dodger since his retirement, but it’s never been officially retired.
For years, clubhouse Manager Pete Sheehy kept Jim Bouton’s No. 56 “retired,” as punishment for his writing Ball Four. He did not want another Yankee wearing it on his watch. It is currently back in circulation. Eddie Gaedel’s 1/8, worn when the midget pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns, was never worn again, nor has any fraction ever appeared.
In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut, Commissioner Bud Selig retired his No. 42 across baseball, with only those currently wearing it allowed to continue. (Mariano Rivera turned out to be the last). There have been active cries for Babe Ruth’s No. 3 and Roberto Clemente’s No. 21 to be similarly honored. (Ruth, it might be noted, so well known for No. 3, only wore it for six seasons with the Yankees after numbers were first issued in 1929).
Where does all this take us? Perhaps pitcher Brandon McCarthy expressed it best when he joined the Yankees in 2014 and summoned a Seinfeld television moment after reviewing all the unavailable retired numbers on the team. “Kramer’s moviefone voice,” he tweeted, “well why don’t you just tell me what number isn’t retired!”
Several players have had their uniform number retired by more than one team including Reggie Jackson’s #9 by the Athletics and #44 by the Yankees.