Retired numbers: Baltimore Orioles

Six heroes played during an 18-year reign of glory; who else should be honored?

If you’re seeking a recent example of baseball incompetence, you need look no further than Baltimore.

The Orioles amassed — if that’s the right word — a record of 126-258 over the past three seasons (2018-2020). They notched eight fewer victories than any other big-league club and 115 fewer than the frontrunning Los Angeles Dodgers.

But those of us with long memories can recall when Baltimore stood for excellence, not ineptitude. The Orioles secured six American League pennants and three World Series trophies between 1966 and 1983. They won 1,668 regular-season games during that period, 90 more than the runner-up Cincinnati Reds.

It’s no surprise that the Orioles have chosen to focus on those distant glory days, retiring the numbers of five players and a manager who were active in that 18-year span. I’ll highlight their stories below in this, the 17th installment of my team-by-team review of big-league jersey retirements.

Nobody has been honored from the franchise’s earlier incarnation as the St. Louis Browns (1902-1953), nor from the initial or recent portions of the team’s Baltimore tenure. And there’s a very good reason for those omissions.

If we subtract the club’s 18 years of glory, we’re left with 101 seasons (1902-1965, 1984-2020). How many World Series do you think the Browns/Orioles managed to win during that century of mediocrity?

Precisely zero.

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Orioles’ numbers already retired

The Orioles have retired half a dozen numbers, all linked to Baltimore players and managers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here they are in numerical order:

No. 4 Earl Weaver led the Orioles to four American League pennants and the 1970 World Series title during 17 seasons as Baltimore’s manager (1968-1982, 1985-1986). His career winning percentage of .583 is third-best among all men who managed at least 2,500 games, topped only by fellow Hall of Famers Joe McCarthy (.615) and John McGraw (.586).

No. 5 Brooks Robinson (1955-1977) established his reputation in the field. He won 16 Gold Gloves as a third baseman, a total unmatched by any non-pitcher. But he also handled himself capably at the plate, leading the American League in 1964 in runs batted in, en route to the Most Valuable Player Award. Robinson was one of two Orioles to score more than 1,000 runs and deliver more than 2,500 hits.

No. 8 Cal Ripken Jr. is best known, of course, for playing in 2,632 straight games from 1982 to 1998, busting Lou Gehrig’s supposedly unbreakable streak of 2,130. Ripken spent his entire 21-year career as a shortstop and third baseman for Baltimore (1981-2001), winning a pair of Most Valuable Player Awards along the way. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in games (3,001), runs (1,647), hits (3,184), and home runs (431).

No. 20 Frank Robinson played only six years (1966-1971) for the Orioles, yet he cemented himself in Baltimore lore during his very first season. The right fielder won the 1966 Triple Crown with 49 homers, 122 RBIs, and a .316 batting average, leading the Orioles to a World Series sweep of the Dodgers. Robinson played for four other clubs, primarily the Reds, and became baseball’s first black manager.

There is no doubt that No. 22 Jim Palmer (1965-1984) was the greatest pitcher in club history. He ranks No. 1 in the franchise’s all-time standings for wins (268), innings (3,948), and strikeouts (2,212), and the gaps between him and the runners-up are enormous in all three cases. Palmer notched at least 20 victories in eight seasons, and he won three Cy Young Awards (1973, 1975, and 1976).

Only Ripken hit more homers than the 343 swatted by No. 33 Eddie Murray (1977-1988, 1996) in an Orioles uniform. The first baseman won a Rookie of the Year Award and three Gold Gloves while in Baltimore. He never won an MVP, yet he finished in the top five of the balloting each year from 1981 to 1985. Murray is fourth in franchise history in games (1,884) and hits (2,080).

Orioles’ candidates for retired numbers

I’ve come up with seven candidates for future retirement ceremonies in Baltimore, though others might be worthy of consideration. Thirty-one Hall of Famers played for the Browns or Orioles — many for short periods of time — so you might be able to add a couple of names to this rundown, though I think these are the leading possibilities:

No. 3 Bobby Grich established himself as one of the game’s best second basemen during his seven years with the Orioles (1970-1976), winning four Gold Gloves and qualifying for three All-Star teams. But Grich fled to the Angels as a free agent in 1977 and spent his final 10 seasons in California. A few analysts have advanced him as a Hall of Fame candidate, though they’re in a minority.

Harold Baines might offer a better reason to retire No. 3. The Hall of Fame right fielder and designated hitter spent seven seasons in a Baltimore uniform (1993-1995, 1997-2000), batting a solid .301 in 666 games. His greatest years came with the White Sox, though it should be noted that Baines is a Maryland native who grew up 70 miles outside of Baltimore.

No. 19 Dave McNally (1962-1974) was overshadowed by fellow pitcher Palmer for much of his career, yet he achieved considerable success. He won 87 games in the four-year stretch from 1968 to 1971, three times finishing among the top four votegetters for the Cy Young Award (though never winning it). McNally is second in club history for wins (181) and starts (384) and third for strikeouts (1,476).

No. 26 Boog Powell was a feared slugger during his 14 seasons with the Orioles (1961-1974). He launched 303 homers, outdoing every Baltimore batter but Ripken and Murray. The first baseman’s greatest season was 1970, when he smashed 35 homers, drove home 114 runs, and won the Most Valuable Player Award. Powell is one of four Orioles with more than 1,000 RBIs.

No. 35 Mike Mussina entered the Hall of Fame without an insignia on his cap. He pitched his first 10 seasons in Baltimore (1991-2000) before moving as a free agent to New York, where he spent his final eight years with the Yankees. Mussina notched 147 of his 270 victories while in Baltimore, putting him third on the Orioles’ all-time win list. He also sits second to Palmer in the club’s rankings for strikeouts (1,535).

Hall of Famer George Sisler is the club’s all-time leader in triples (145) and stolen bases (351). He also ranks third in runs (1,091) and hits (2,295) and fifth in RBIs (962). Those would seem to be sufficient credentials for jersey retirement, so why has the first baseman been ignored? The answer, of course, is that the numberless Sisler played in the franchise’s distant St. Louis period (1915-1927).

Bobby Wallace (1902-1916) is in the same boat as Sisler. He, too, played in St. Louis before players wore numerals on their backs. The Hall of Fame shortstop remains on the franchise’s top 10 lists for games played (1,569) and plate appearances (6,211). His 48.5 wins above replacement are sixth among all Browns and Orioles, putting him behind only Ripken (95.9), Brooks Robinson (78.4), Palmer (68.5), Murray (56.5), and Sisler (54.2). 

The outlook

Let’s dispense with Sisler and Wallace right away. Yes, they’re both Hall of Famers, and yes, they’re both among the leaders in several of the franchise’s statistical categories. But the Orioles have shown no willingness to acknowledge their St. Louis past. No ceremonies will be held in Baltimore for either of these old-timers.

The case for No. 3 doesn’t seem all that strong, either. Grich was an outstanding player, and Baines has been inducted in Cooperstown. But their Baltimore roots aren’t overly compelling, since they spent the bulk of their careers in Anaheim and Chicago, respectively. (Baines, in fact, has had his jersey retired by the White Sox.) 

Powell and McNally go back to the glory days that have already been greatly celebrated. Powell was a prominent slugger, though not as feared as Frank Robinson. McNally was an excellent pitcher, though not as strong as Palmer. A good case can be made for both, but the Orioles have ignored them for decades. It seems unlikely that the club would suddenly decide to honor them.

That leaves Mussina, who made 40 more starts and posted 24 more wins for the Orioles than for the Yankees. He spoke fondly of Baltimore upon his induction to the Hall of Fame, and he maintained neutrality on his plaque, reassuring Orioles fans who feared he would wear a New York cap in Cooperstown.

Mussina left Baltimore as a free agent, which might reduce the club’s desire to honor him. But he spent four more seasons with the Orioles than Frank Robinson did, so a retirement ceremony still seems to be a valid possibility.

The next move is up to the O’s.

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