Retired numbers: Atlanta Braves

The team's selections have been strong, but shouldn't Andruw Jones be added?

The New York Yankees, as everyone knows, are fanatics about retiring the numbers of star players and fabled managers. They’ve pulled 22 jerseys from circulation, eight more than any other big-league club.

A tight group of eight franchises — all at least 120 years old — are bunched in the next echelon. These teams have retired anywhere from 10 to 14 numbers. Included in their ranks is today’s subject, the Atlanta Braves.

It would be more accurate, I suppose, to refer to them as the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves. The team has been based in Georgia for 55 seasons, a span that accounts for less than 40% of its 145-year history. Massachusetts was home from 1876 to 1952, followed by a 1953-1965 hiatus in Wisconsin, and only then did the club head south.

The Braves’ geographic volatility complicates the situation. Teams that have changed addresses tend to lose interest in honoring stars who established their reputations in previous home cities.

That has certainly been the case with the Philadelphia-Kansas City-Oakland Athletics, as we noted a few weeks ago. And it’s also true, though to a lesser extent, with the Braves.

Six of the team’s 10 retirees played or managed solely in Atlanta. A seventh, Phil Niekro, launched his career in Milwaukee, but didn’t become a star until the franchise relocated.

That leaves the great triumvirate of Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, and Henry Aaron. All enjoyed their greatest success in Milwaukee, though Spahn also pitched well in Boston, and Mathews was a rookie there. Mathews would also move on to Atlanta for a single season, while Aaron would achieve home run immortality in that city.

And what of the club’s 77 seasons in Boston? Spahn and Mathews are the only honorees with any connection to those years, which still equal more than half of the franchise’s lifespan.

Braves’ numbers already retired

The Braves have set a high bar for number retirement. All but one of the players and managers so honored have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Here’s a quick rundown in numerical order:

The lone exception is No. 3 Dale Murphy (1976-1990 with the Braves). The outfielder won two Most Valuable Player Awards while with Atlanta, and he swatted 398 homers in an 18-year career. But Hall of Fame voters weren’t impressed, never giving him better than 23% support.

No. 6 Bobby Cox (1978-1981, 1990-2010) managed the Braves to five National League pennants, highlighted by the 1995 World Series championship. His 2,504 wins (including a stint in Toronto) put him fourth on the all-time list.

No. 10 Chipper Jones (1993-2012) batted higher than .300 in 10 seasons, heading to a career .303 average. The third baseman won the National League’s MVP Award in 1999, when he hit .319 with 45 homers and 110 runs batted in.

The winningest lefthanded pitcher in big-league history remains No. 21 Warren Spahn (1942-1964). His first 122 victories came in Boston, the next 234 in Milwaukee, and the final seven in a mop-up season with the Mets and Giants. Grand total: 363 wins.

No. 29 John Smoltz (1988-2008) had a most unusual career. He was primarily a starting pitcher, though he pivoted in midstream to become the Braves’ closer for four seasons, leading the majors in 2002 with 55 saves. His career totals for Atlanta: 210 victories, 154 saves.

Many experts considered No. 31 Greg Maddux (1993-2003) to be the finest pitcher of his generation. He earned a Cy Young Award with the Cubs before arriving in Atlanta, where he quickly won three more. Maddux’s 355 victories are eighth on the all-time list.

No. 35 Phil Niekro (1964-1983, 1987) rode his knuckleball to 318 wins and a plaque in Cooperstown. His first 51 appearances occurred for Milwaukee, followed by 689 for Atlanta. He also pitched for the Indians, Yankees, and Blue Jays.

No. 41 Eddie Mathews (1952-1966) pulled a unique trifecta — playing one season for the Braves in Boston, 13 in Milwaukee, and one in Atlanta. The third baseman led the majors in home runs in 1953 and 1959, blasting a total of 512 in a 17-year career.

It makes no difference that Barry Bonds passed him by. Millions of baseball fans will always consider No. 44 Henry Aaron (1954-1974) to be the home run king. The right fielder topped Babe Ruth’s record while playing for Atlanta, though he blasted a majority of his homers (398 of 755) in a Milwaukee uniform.

No. 47 Tom Glavine (1987-2002, 2008) won two Cy Young Awards with the Braves, and he finished second in the balloting two other times. Glavine notched 244 victories for Atlanta and 305 for his career, including five seasons with the Mets.

Braves’ candidates for retired numbers

If the Braves are looking to retire additional jerseys, there is no shortage of candidates. Forty-six Hall of Famers donned the club’s uniform at some point, including such immortals as Babe Ruth, Cy Young, and Rogers Hornsby.

I’m not suggesting that any of those three are deserving. A 40-year-old Ruth played just 28 games for the Braves in 1935, Young was even older (44) when he went 4-5 for the Braves at the tailend of his pitching career in 1911, and Hornsby spent the single season of 1928 as Boston’s second baseman and manager.

Yet there have been others who stayed longer with — and played well for — the Braves. Let’s start with three Hall of Famers, then add a couple of more recent contenders:

  • No. 1 Rabbit Maranville (1912-1920, 1929-1935) made it to Cooperstown on the strength of his glovework (and his free-spirited personality). The stats confirm his prowess in the field, putting him second in franchise history for defensive wins above replacement (19.3), trailing only Andruw Jones. He ranks fifth in games played for the Braves (1,795).

  • No. 15 Joe Torre (1960-1968) made three All-Star teams as a catcher with Milwaukee, then two more with Atlanta, though his greatest glory came after he was traded away. Torre won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1971 and went on to a Hall of Fame career as a manager.

  • Several Boston stars played in the era before numerals were affixed to uniforms. The greatest was Kid Nichols (1890-1901), who was a mainstay of Boston’s pitching staff in the franchise’s early years, winning at least 30 games in seven different seasons and 330 in his 12 years with the club. His 107.2 wins above replacement are second only to Aaron in franchise history. Nichols was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1949.

  • No. 5 Freddie Freeman (2010-2020) is still active and playing extremely well. The first baseman is a leading contender to be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player later this month. It’s surprising to note that he is already 31 years old and an 11-season Atlanta veteran. Freeman ranks sixth in franchise history in home runs (240) and 10th in games played (1,406) and seems likely to climb much further up both lists.

  • No. 25 Andruw Jones (1996-2007) was a wizard in center field, winning 10 Gold Gloves during his 12 seasons with the Braves. He also hit 368 home runs for Atlanta, leading the majors with 51 in 2005. Jones’s 61.0 WAR is the second-highest for any Brave whose uniform has not been retired, trailing only Nichols.

The outlook

Let’s be honest. There’s no chance that the Braves will ever hold a retirement ceremony for Maranville or Nichols. They have faded too many years — and too many cities — into the past.

Torre also seems an unlikely candidate. He was a solid player in both Milwaukee and Atlanta, though his real fame came elsewhere — as a player with the Cardinals and a manager with the Yankees.

That leaves Freeman and Jones. The former is still playing — and still racking up big numbers — so his time is years away. But Andruw Jones has the record to warrant solid consideration, as well as a second quality of great importance: He belongs totally to Atlanta, with no ties to Boston or Milwaukee whatsoever.

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