Honoring each team’s all-time greats
Big-league clubs have retired 221 uniform numbers, but several deserving candidates are still waiting
The greatest honor for anybody associated with Major League Baseball is induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A total of 333 players, managers, umpires, and executives have been immortalized in the Hall’s Plaque Gallery in Cooperstown, New York.
Admission is not easily obtained, partly because of the convoluted nature of the Hall’s selection process. Sportswriters choose many of the inductees, and several committees chip in with additional choices. (The number and responsibilities of those committees have changed many times over the decades.)
The procedure’s only constant is its national scope. No candidate can pass through the Hall of Fame’s doors without drawing support from all corners of the country.
But that’s not the case with baseball’s second tier of career honors. Every big-league team, with the exception of Miami, has saluted former players, managers, and other employees by retiring their numbers.
This is a purely local process, with each club setting its own standards and making its own choices.
The Yankees are the undisputed champions of uniform retirement, having removed every single-digit jersey from circulation but No. 0 (currently worn by pitcher Adam Ottavino) and a total of 22 numbers in all. (The count technically is 21, but it includes the double retirement of No. 8 in honor of catchers Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra.)
Four other teams have saluted more than 10 players and associated personnel — the Cardinals and Giants with 14 jerseys apiece, the Reds with 13, and the White Sox with 11. (These totals do not include Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, which was retired for all 30 clubs not at their own discretion, but by special order of Commissioner Bud Selig in 1997.)
You might assume that baseball’s tally of retired numbers would greatly exceed its count of Hall of Famers. The standards for the second tier naturally tend to be a bit lower, after all, and most clubs are eager to honor any player who makes a substantive mark locally, even if he falls short of Cooperstown caliber.
But your assumption would be incorrect. The 30 big-league clubs have retired only 221 numbers, falling 34% short of the Hall of Fame’s total.
This deficit can largely be explained by most clubs’ reluctance to honor their earliest stars.
A total of 66 players were admitted to the Hall in its first quarter-century (1936-1960). Only 18 of these trailblazers have also had their numbers retired — Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby, Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner among them.
It’s true that many old-timers — including Cobb, Mathewson, and Wagner — never carried numerals on their uniforms. The practice of numbering jerseys didn’t become established until 1929, when the Indians and Yankees adopted it, and didn’t gain widespread acceptance until the mid-1930s.
But the Tigers and Giants neatly sidestepped this problem, symbolically retiring unnumbered uniforms for Cobb and Mathewson. The Pirates chose the number that Wagner wore in later life as a coach, No. 33, to honor his playing career.
Nor is there any reason why a number couldn’t be chosen at random to recognize a hero of the digit-less era. That’s precisely what the Angels, Brewers, and Cardinals did in paying tribute to their respective former owners, Gene Autry (No. 26), Bud Selig (No. 1), and August Busch (No. 85).
Several teams, however, continue to ignore some of their earliest stars, as well as a few of more recent vintage. Joe Gordon, Rich Gossage, Vladimir Guerrero, Mike Mussina, and Lee Smith were all admitted to Cooperstown between 2008 and 2019, yet haven’t had their numbers retired by any of the clubs they played for.
We’ll be taking a much closer look at baseball’s retired numbers over the next several months, conducting a team-by-team review. It’s a fascinating way to look back at the history of each franchise — discovering which players have been honored, which should be added, and (perhaps) which should never have been selected in the first place.
We’ll start on Friday with the Angels, then return to the subject every couple of weeks. We’re saving the best — or, should we say, the most numerous — for last, since the Yankees bring up the rear on the alphabetical list of nicknames.