When the Mets inexplicably named Ricky Henderson a coach during the 2007 season, the team called Willie Mays, to see if he’d mind if Ricky wore his old number 24. Willie said fine, go ahead. My first thought was mild surprise that the Mets never retired Mays’s 24. Mild, because as a lifelong Mets fan, I know how stingy they are in retiring numbers. The only player number the team has retired is Tom Seaver’s 41 (that’s right, no Jerry Koosman (36), Tug McGraw (45), Keith Hernandez (17), or Gary Carter (8)). They’ve even retired a stadium (Shea). But this is Willie Mays for crying out loud. Sure, his season and a half with the Mets were less than distinguished. But a legend wore your uniform, and you don’t deem it worthy of retirement?
I wondered if there was a similar precedent, where a great player returned to his original city to end his career. Of course, we have Hank Aaron. He went back to Milwaukee, winding up his playing days with two seasons of un-Aaron like numbers. But still, the Brewers retired his 44. While these two situations are indeed very similar, there is one glaring difference – Aaron played 12 seasons with the Milwaukee Braves before the team moved to Atlanta. Mays played just six seasons with the New York Giants before they moved West. But in those years, he won Rookie of the Year, an MVP award, and a World Series. Doesn’t Mays’ number deserve to hang somewhere in the Big Apple, just as Aaron’s hangs in Milwaukee?
All this talk about retired numbers got me thinking about, well, retired numbers. And luckily the good folks at MLB.com list each team’s retired numbers on their respective websites. I found some things you’d expect, and many, many surprises.
Here’s something obvious – the Yankees have the most retired numbers, 16. That doesn’t include Jackie Robinson, whose 42 is retired by every team. But it does include one number twice (8), for both Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. And when the Yankees eventually retire Derek Jeter’s 2 and Joe Torre’s 6, the team will have no single digit uniform numbers left to wear!
The Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Mariners and Blue Jays have no retired player numbers (the Marlins actually retired number 5, in honor of their first team President, Carl Barger). The first four teams make sense, but the Blue Jays? They won back-to-back World Series! Certainly, there are heroes from those teams who deserve to be honored (Joe Carter, anyone?).
Hell, even the Rays have a retired number – Wade Boggs (12), who played just two seasons in Tampa Bay. Oddly, Boston has not retired Boggs’s number, where he played 11 years and collected more than 2000 of his 3010 hits. Perhaps that’s the cost of defecting to the Yankees!
Nolan Ryan (left, in best uniform ever!) is the only player to have his number retired by three teams – the Astros and Rangers both retired his 34, while the Angels have laid his 30 to rest.
Just 7 players and one manager have had their numbers retired by two teams. Casey Stengel (37) is the skipper, by the Mets and the Yankees. Rod Carew (29), Angels and Twins; Reggie Jackson, A’s (9) and Yankees (44); Rollie Fingers (34), A’s and Brewers; Carlton Fisk, Red Sox (27) and White Sox (72); Frank Robinson (20), Reds and Orioles; Greg Maddux (31), Cubs and Braves; and the aforementioned Aaron (44), Braves and Brewers, are the players.
Some teams seem too generous in handing out the honor. The Astros are one such club. For a team without much of a history (no World Series titles and just one appearance in the Fall Classic in 46 seasons), they have 9 retired numbers. Compare that to the Tigers, who have been around for 107 years, and have just 5 numbers hanging at Comerica. The Astros apparently take the course of “let’s honor our crowd favorites,” so good, but not great players such as Jimmy Wynn (24), Jose Cruz (25) and Mike Scott (33) are immortalized in team history.
That same strategy must have led the Expos to retire Rusty Staub’s number 10 (left). He played with the club for just 4 years (1969-71, and 1979). But he was the face of the expansion Expos for the first three years of their existence, and that was apparently important enough to retire his number.
The Indians have a rich history, but apparently nothing noteworthy in the last half century. Bob Lemon (21) is the most recent number retiree to play with the Tribe, and his last season was 1958.
On the flipside are the Cardinals. Their 10 retirees span the century, from the 30s, Dizzy Dean (17); the 40s, Enos Slaughter (9); the 50s, Stan Musial (6); the 60s, Bob Gibson (45); the 70s, Lou Brock (20); the 80s, Bruce Sutter (42); and from the 90s, Ozzie Smith (1).
Speaking of Sutter, it doesn’t look like he will join the ranks of dual retirees anytime soon. He played just 4 years with the Cards, and 5 with the Cubs, but he’s wearing a Cardinal hat on his Hall of Fame plaque. And the Cubs are a team that apparently values loyalty above all else. Except for Maddux, Chicago’s retirees — Ron Santo (10), Ryne Sandberg (14), Ernie Banks (23), and Billy Williams (26) — all spent virtually their entire careers in the Windy City.
How about a guy like Steve Garvey? Certainly his number is retired, right? Yes, but not by the Dodgers, where he played for 14 seasons, won an MVP and was a perennial all star. No, Garvey’s number 6 hangs in San Diego, where he played the final 5 years of his career. But he hit what the Padres website calls “the most famous home run in Padres history” that propelled them to their first World Series appearance in 1984. By the way, the retirement-phobic Tigers thrashed the Padres in that series. No members of that Tigers squad have had their numbers retired.
As for the Dodgers, they have 10 retired numbers, which is tied for second most. This time that includes Jackie Robinson (42), since he had his number retired long before baseball made its historic decision. That’s a lot, but it still doesn’t seem like enough from a franchise with such a storied history. Where’s Fernando Valenzuela, who electrified all of baseball back in 1981, winning Rookie of the Year and Cy Young? And the infield Garvey anchored with Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey for a record 8 years? And Orel Hershiser and his 60 consecutive scoreless innings? And World Series hero Kirk Gibson?
It just goes to show how each team has its own criteria. One great franchise changing moment may be enough for the Padres, but it’s not enough for the Blue Jays or Dodgers. Some teams only seem to retire the numbers of its players who make the Hall of Fame, like the Orioles, Phillies, Pirates and Red Sox (in fact, according to the team website, that’s official Red Sox policy – elected to the Hall of Fame, and 10 years with the club. Yet still no Boggs. Hmm.). While other teams will retire a player’s number if they had a nice career for them, like a Frank White (20) with the Royals or a Jim Fregosi (11) with the Angels.
So which team does it right? On one hand, it’s kind of depressing to be a Mets fan and have your team basically tell you that you’ve only seen one truly great player wear its uniform. But maybe that’s better than a team which retires the numbers of popular, yet sub par players, giving fans the feeling “that’s the best we’ve ever had?” But only retiring the numbers of Hall of Famers feels a little too exclusive. So I’ll ask again – which team does it right? Damned if I know!