Retired numbers: Cleveland Indians

Future candidates run the historical gamut from Cy Young to Satchel Paige to CC Sabathia

The Cleveland Indians have not been the most successful of franchises. They’ve won only two world championships in the 120 years since their founding in 1901. And they’ve struggled through 72 unhappy seasons since their most recent title, the longest current drought in baseball.

Yet the history of the soon-to-be-renamed Indians hasn’t been entirely negative. Thirty-two Hall of Famers have taken the field in Cleveland uniforms, an impressively large pool of talent.

Eight former Indians — seven of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown — attained sufficient glory to warrant retirement of their jerseys. They’re commemorated on the wall high above right field in Progressive Field.

The club has actually retired 10 numerals. Among them, of course, is No. 42, which was pulled from circulation by all teams in 1997 in honor of Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers superstar who had integrated baseball a half-century earlier.

And the tenth? It’s actually the only triple-digit number honored by any big-league franchise. We’ll get to that in a minute as we make the 12th stop in our team-by-team rundown of retired uniforms.

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Indians’ numbers already retired

Let’s take a look at the all-time heroes whose surnames and uniform numbers greet fans to the Indians’ ballpark. We’ll take them in numerical order.

No. 3 Earl Averill patrolled center field for the Indians for slightly more than a decade (1929-1939). He’s been gone for 82 years, yet he still holds the franchise records for plate appearances (6,712), runs scored (1,154), triples (121), and runs batted in (1,084). Averill never won a Most Valuable Player Award, but he did finish among the top four votegetters in the American League three times.

No. 5 Lou Boudreau played two roles in Cleveland. The shortstop (1938-1950) led the AL with a .327 batting average in 1944, then won the MVP trophy in 1948, when he batted .355. Boudreau doubled as manager during his final nine seasons in Cleveland (1942-1950) and led the Indians to their second (and last) world title in 1948.

No. 14 Larry Doby (1947-1955) made history on July 5, 1947, becoming the first black player in the American League. The center fielder qualified for seven All-Star teams while with Cleveland and twice paced the league in home runs.

No. 18 Mel Harder (1928-1947) is the only honoree in Progressive Field who can’t also be found in Cooperstown. Harder spent his entire 20-year career pitching for the Indians. He led the AL in earned run average in 1933 (2.95) and remains second in franchise history with 223 wins.

No. 19 Bob Feller (1936-1941, 1945-1956) is still considered one of the greatest pitchers — and certainly one of the fastest — in big-league history. No Indian pitched more innings (3,827), notched more wins (266), and or racked up more strikeouts (2,581). Feller led the AL in strikeouts seven times, and he undoubtedly would have reached 300 victories if not for more than three years of military service.

No. 20 Frank Robinson established his reputation as a preeminent outfielder with the Reds and Orioles, yet he entered the record books in a different way during his years in Cleveland. Robinson batted only .226 as a designated hitter for the Indians (1974-1976), but what mattered more was his stint as the club’s manager from 1975 to the middle of 1977, making him the first black manager in the majors.

No. 21 Bob Lemon (1946-1958) was the only pitcher besides Feller and Harder to accumulate at least 200 wins for Cleveland. He finished with 207, leading the league in victories three times. He also paced the AL in complete games five times.

No. 25 Jim Thome (1991-2002, 2011) gained his Cleveland fame as a slugger. The first baseman and DH holds the franchise record for most home runs (337), and he ranks second to Averill in RBIs with 937.

That brings us to one of the strangest retired numbers in the game, No. 455. It honors Cleveland’s fans, who sold out what was then known as Jacobs Field for every home game from June 1995 until April 2001, a total of 455 consecutive regular-season games. No other club has retired a numeral higher than 85.

Indians’ candidates for retired numbers

There’s still room on Progressive Field’s wall to salute additional Cleveland heroes. And, indeed, there still are heroes worth saluting.

Below are eight plausible candidates, listed in order of their debuts with the franchise. The first five are already in the Hall of Fame. One or two of the others might eventually make it to Cooperstown, too.

It should be noted that the initial three candidates played before the club began affixing numbers to uniforms, but that presents no difficulty. Several other teams have artifically assigned numerals to such legends, or have simply retired blank jerseys.

Second baseman Nap Lajoie (1902-1914) was so dominant that the club was actually named after him, being known as the Naps from 1903 to 1914. (His departure triggered the unfortunate switch to Indians in 1915.) Lajoie won three AL batting titles with Cleveland, hitting .338 for his entire 21-year career. He still ranks first in franchise history with 79.8 wins above replacement.

Famed pitcher Cy Young spent parts of his final three seasons with the Naps (1909-1911), going 29-29. That’s hardly a reason to retire his jersey, but there’s more. Young previously starred for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, racking up 240 victories in nine years (1890-1898), and he was an Ohio native who is buried 110 miles south of Cleveland.

Center fielder Tris Speaker (1916-1926) remains second in franchise history with 74.3 WAR. Speaker is No. 1 on the club’s all-time list for doubles (486), and his batting average of .354 is second among all Indians to Shoeless Joe Jackson’s .375. (Jackson, of course, is definitely not a candidate to have his uniform retired, thanks to his role in fixing the 1919 World Series.)

A cursory look at the record for Satchel Paige shows no reason to retire his No. 29. Paige appeared in only 52 games for Cleveland over two seasons (1948-1949), notching 10 wins and six saves. But it’s important to note that he was 42 years old — and already a renowned figure — when he became the first black pitcher in the American League.

No. 24 Early Wynn reached Cooperstown by pitching precisely 300 victories, with 164 coming during two stints with the Indians (1949-1957, 1963). The latter total ranks fifth in franchise history.

No. 7 Kenny Lofton kept shuttling to and from Cleveland (1992-1996, 1998-2001, 2007), but he was a solid presence in center field whenever he played for the Indians. He is the club’s all-time leader in stolen bases (452) and ranks third in runs scored (975).

No. 13 Omar Vizquel (1994-2004) was the smoothest shortstop of his time, so smooth that he won Gold Gloves in each of his first eight seasons with the Indians. Vizquel also made his mark at the plate, ranking second among all Indians in stolen bases (279) and sixth in both plate appearances (6,542) and runs (906).

CC Sabathia cemented his pitching reputation with the Yankees, so it’s often forgotten that he first wore No. 52 for the Indians (2001-2008). Sabathia won the Cy Young Award in 2007 and ranks seventh in Cleveland history with 1,265 strikeouts.

The outlook

Prospects are usually dim for candidates with numberless pasts. The Indians have had a century to honor Lajoie and Young and nearly as long to salute Speaker. If they haven’t done it already, why would they do it now?

Here’s why it would make sense. The franchise will be cutting links with its longtime nickname in 2022. What better time to forge new connections to its past by honoring three of Cleveland’s all-time greats?

The same holds true for Paige, who is widely considered to be one of the sport’s greatest pitchers. Dizzy Dean, whose Hall of Fame pitching skills were matched only by his braggadocio, barnstormed with Paige in the 1930s. “My fastball looks like a change of pace alongside that pistol bullet old Satch shoots up to the plate,” Dean conceded with rare humility, adding that Paige had “the greatest stuff I ever saw.” Why not honor such a star who not only made history in Cleveland, but also helped secure the franchise’s last world title?

Wynn would seem to make sense, too, if only because he performed at a similar level in Cleveland to Harder, who is already on the wall. And Wynn, unlike Harder, is also in Cooperstown.

That leaves the three recent players. Lofton has longevity on his side, but Vizquel and Sabathia can outbid him with legitimate shots at making the Hall of Fame. Vizquel received 49% support this year, well short of the 75% threshold, yet still a solid figure. Sabathia won’t be eligible until 2024, though his 251 career wins will make him a legitimate candidate.

The future balloting for Cooperstown could well determine if any of these recent Indians join their predecessors on Cleveland’s right field wall.

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