Retired numbers: Chicago Cubs

This historic club is nearly 150 years old, yet it has given only six players the ultimate honor

Eight teams participated in the National League’s inaugural season in 1876. Six quickly vanished into the mists of history.

The Hartford Dark Blues and Louisville Grays folded before the end of the decade. Clubs in Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis met the same fate, later to be replaced by local franchises of greater durability.

Only two of the NL’s charter members survived those tumultuous early years. They now share the distinction of being the oldest clubs in Major League Baseball.

One of those original teams severed its roots long ago. The Boston Red Stockings, who eventually morphed into the Braves, relocated twice during their 145-season history, moving to Milwaukee in 1953 and Atlanta in 1966.

But the Braves’ only National League contemporary stayed in its hometown. The nicknames changed — White Stockings, Colts, Orphans — but the team now known as the Cubs has never left Chicago.

It stands to reason that a franchise blessed with such longevity and stability must have employed dozens and dozens of outstanding players. And that’s true: 44 Hall of Famers took the diamond for Chicago’s National League team at some point during their careers.

It seems equally logical that the Cubs must have saluted many of these all-time greats by retiring their uniform numbers. But that isn’t true: The team has pulled the jerseys of only six players out of circulation, the smallest total for any of the eight franchises that have been in existence for more than 120 years.

If the brain trust at Wrigley Field ever decides to loosen up and become more generous with its retirement honors, there is no shortage of deserving candidates.

Subscribe — free — to Baseball’s Best (and Worst)

A new installment will arrive in your email each Tuesday and Friday morning

Cubs’ numbers already retired

The Cubs have actually retired only five numbers. But they have extended the honor to cover half a dozen of their greatest players, all of whom are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • No. 10 Ron Santo played third base for the Cubs for 14 years (1960-1973) before wrapping up his career with a single season in a White Sox uniform. Santo reigned as the National League’s preeminent third baseman at his peak, winning consecutive Gold Gloves from 1964 through 1968. He batted .277 during a tough era for hitters, leading the NL four times in walks and twice in on-base percentage.

  • Perhaps the most beloved Cub of all time was No. 14 Ernie Banks (1953-1971) of “let’s play two” fame. Banks was so highly regarded that he won Most Valuable Player Awards in 1958 and 1959, even though the Cubs posted losing records both times. The shortstop and first baseman is the franchise leader in games played (2,528) and total bases (4,706). And his 512 home runs are second only to Sammy Sosa’s 545.

  • No. 23 Ryne Sandberg debuted with the Phillies in 1981, then was traded over the winter to Chicago, where he remained for 15 seasons (1982-1994, 1996-1997). He was named the MVP in 1984, the same year that he won the second of nine consecutive Gold Gloves at second base. He led the league three times in runs scored and once in home runs.

  • Only two players in Cubs history piled up more than 2,500 hits and 300 home runs. Banks was one, and No. 26 Billy Williams was the other. Williams is third on the franchise’s all-time lists in both categories, with 2,510 hits and 392 homers over 16 years (1959-1974). The left fielder’s best season was 1972, when he led the league in batting average (.333) and slugging average (.606). 

  • The club’s fifth retired number — No. 31 — does double duty, honoring pitchers Ferguson Jenkins (1966-1973, 1982-1983) and Greg Maddux (1986-1992, 2004-2006). Jenkins is the franchise’s career leader in strikeouts (2,038) and games started (347). Maddux is sixth and fifth, respectively, in those categories. Both men rank among the 30 winningest pitchers in big-league history: Maddux is eighth with 355 wins (133 for the Cubs), while Jenkins is 29th with 284 (167 for the Cubs).

Cubs’ candidates for retired numbers

The Cubs didn’t add numerals to their uniforms until 1932, a full 56 years after the franchise was founded. Several Chicago stars, as a result, never wore a number that could be retired.

That’s a minor problem, of course. Other clubs have assigned numbers to their oldtimers or have retired blank jerseys. Both options would apply here.

So let’s look at candidates for the Cubs, listed in the order of their Chicago debuts:

Cap Anson (1876-1897 with Chicago) was arguably the greatest baseball player of the 19th century. The Hall of Fame first baseman rapped 3,012 hits for Chicago, 3,435 overall. The former remains a franchise record; the latter is still seventh on the sport’s lifetime list. Anson also paces the Cubs in career wins above replacement (84.7).

A famous poem by Franklin Pierce Adams — “Tinker to Evers to Chance” — brought immortality to the Cubs’ famed double-play combination in the early 20th century. Joe Tinker (1902-1912), Johnny Evers (1902-1913), and Frank Chance (1898-1912) were all elected to Cooperstown in 1946. Tinker was the best fielder of the three. (His defensive WAR of 29.7 is still the highest career total for any Cubs player at any position.) Chance was the best batter. (His career on-base percentage of .394 is the seventh-strongest in team history.)

Pitcher Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown (1904-1912, 1916) won at least 20 games every year from 1906 through 1911, peaking at 29 wins in 1908. He added five more victories in four World Series, including a shutout of the Tigers that clinched the 1907 championship. His 188 wins rank second in franchise history.

No. 9 Gabby Hartnett caught 1,753 games for the Cubs in 19 seasons (1922-1940). He batted over .300 five times, averaging .297 during the Chicago part of his career. (He finished up with the Giants.) Hartnett’s 231 homers put him in seventh place in franchise history, as does his WAR of 55.9.

Hack Wilson’s career was short — just 12 seasons, including six (1926-1931) with the Cubs — but it was colorful. Wilson will always be remembered for one number above all others: 191. That’s how many RBIs he piled up in 1930, still the single-season record for the major leagues. Wilson is also the franchise leader in slugging percentage at .590. (He never wore a number with the Cubs, but later donned No. 4 with the Dodgers.)

No. 46 Lee Smith amassed the first 180 saves of his Hall of Fame career with the Cubs (1980-1987). He went on to pitch for seven other clubs, accumulating 478 saves in all. But his total of 180 remains at the top of the all-time list for Cubs relievers.

The first year in Chicago for No. 8 Andre Dawson was his best. The outfielder arrived as a free agent in 1987 after 11 seasons with the Expos. He immediately led the National League with 49 homers and 137 RBIs and was crowned as MVP. Dawson stayed with the Cubs for six years (1987-1992), batting .285 with 174 homers.

No. 21 Sammy Sosa (1992-2004) electrified all of baseball by blasting more than 60 home runs in three different seasons, notably 66 in 1998, when he battled Mark McGwire in a race that the Cardinals star eventually won. Sosa is the career home run leader for the Cubs at 545, though he has been dogged by rumors of steroid use (which he has repeatedly denied).

And don’t forget the team’s current stars. Somebody from the Cubs’ ballyhooed 2016 world-championship club will probably stick around Wrigley Field long enough to accumulate the statistics that would warrant a number retirement. The frontrunners are No. 17 Kris Bryant and No. 44 Anthony Rizzo. Stay tuned.

The outlook

There is no evidence that the Cubs plan to ease their restrictive policy on retired numbers, though they clearly have plenty of options. Everybody named in the section above — with the exception of Sosa and the current players — has been inducted into Cooperstown.

It seems obvious that Sosa has no chance, given the PED controversy. And the same is true of Anson, who was one of baseball’s earliest superstars, yet was also a virulent racist.

The Cubs have had more than 80 years to celebrate their other famous names from the era prior to World War II, though they have declined to do so. We can therefore assume that there is little likelihood of Tinker, Evers, Chance, Brown, Hartnett, or Wilson being honored.

That leaves only two candidates, both of whom played in the past 40 years. Smith and Dawson both took the field for other clubs, staying in Chicago for eight and six years, respectively. Was that long enough to warrant a ceremony in Wrigley Field? It seems unlikely, given that each of the six players whose numbers were retired spent at least a decade in a Cubs uniform.

Who’s left? Bryant, Rizzo, and their contemporaries, that’s who. And they’re still years away from hanging up their cleats.

So it appears that the franchise’s stinginess is going to continue. The Cubs will celebrate their 150th birthday later in this decade, and chances are quite good that they will have only six retired jerseys to commemorate that long historic span.

Previous posts on retired numbers