Retired numbers: Milwaukee Brewers

Five Hall of Famers and the zany Bob Uecker have been honored; who’s next?

The Milwaukee Brewers wouldn’t like to hear it, but they have something in common with their archrivals 90 miles to the south.

The Brewers have retired six uniforms in honor of ex-players and club officials, precisely the same number as the Chicago Cubs. The only difference is that the Cubs have been in existence for 145 years, while the Brewers have played just 52 seasons since their creation as the Seattle Pilots in 1969.

That might seem to imply that the Brewers have been extravagant. Not so. It’s more a case of the Cubs being unusually reticent, a topic we’ll investigate next month.

There is no disputing the quality of Milwaukee’s honorees. Five are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, while the sixth is a local icon who has been installed in the so-called broadcasters’ wing in Cooperstown.

Nor is the Brewers’ activity unusual for clubs of such age. Consider their three contemporaries. The Pilots (who moved to Milwaukee after a lone season in Seattle) were admitted to the major leagues along with the Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals), and San Diego Padres in 1969.

The Padres have retired seven uniforms — one more than the Brewers’ six — and the Nationals have celebrated five. Only the Royals have deviated from the pack, finding just two players and a manager worthy of such honors.

Milwaukee has run out of homegrown Hall of Famers to salute — and there aren’t any promising candidates on the immediate horizon — so it might be assumed that American Family Field (the new name for Miller Park) won’t host any retirement ceremonies during the next few years. But that, as we shall see, isn’t necessarily the case.

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Brewers’ numbers already retired

Bud Selig never wore No. 1, since he didn’t play for the Brewers, yet there is no denying his preeminence in the franchise’s history. It was Selig who purchased the Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee, and it was he who secured public funding for construction of Miller Park. Baseball may remember Selig as a controversial commissioner, but Milwaukeeans recall him as the man who restored their city to the major leagues.

No. 4 Paul Molitor (1978-1992 with the Brewers) came to Milwaukee as a second baseman, but also played the other three infield positions, center field, and designated hitter during his 15 seasons with the club. Molitor’s 2,281 hits are the second-most by any Brewer, and his lifetime total of 3,319 (including stops in Toronto and Minnesota) is 10th among all big leaguers.

No. 19 Robin Yount (1974-1993) is the undisputed icon of the franchise. The shortstop and center fielder played his entire career in Milwaukee, won American League Most Valuable Player Awards in 1982 and 1989, and racked up 3,142 hits (20th on the all-time list). Yount leads the Brewers in several statistical categories, including games (2,856), runs (1,632), hits, runs batted in (1,406), and extra base hits (960).

The inclusion of No. 34 Rollie Fingers is admittedly curious. Yes, Fingers was a Hall of Fame reliever, but his star shone brightest with the famed Athletics of the early 1970s, not during his four-year coda in Milwaukee (1981-1982, 1984-1985). Fingers pitched only 259 innings in a Brewers uniform, though he did snag a Cy Young Award and an MVP trophy after the strike-shortened 1981 season.

No. 44 Henry Aaron spent even less time than Fingers with the Brewers, just two seasons (1975-1976). He batted .232 as an aging designated hitter, swatting the final 22 of his 755 home runs. His number was retired as a gesture of gratitude — both for his outstanding play during his first Milwaukee hitch with the Braves (.320 BA and 398 homers in 12 seasons) and for his eagerness to return to the city for a curtain call.

The No. 50 is linked to Bob Uecker high on the outfield wall at American Family Field, though the numeral is merely symbolic of a big-league career extending more than 50 years. (No. 50 remains in the club’s on-field rotation.) The irrepressible Uecker debuted as a catcher for the Milwaukee Braves in 1962, though he is best known as a broadcaster. He has been a Brewers announcer since 1971, even while attaining national fame as a comedian through his appearances on network television and in the movies.

Brewers’ candidates for retired numbers

If the Brewers decide to retire additional numbers, the honorees will have to be position players. No pitcher in franchise history has amassed more than 117 wins, 133 saves, or 1,226 strikeouts in a Milwaukee uniform, numbers that fall far short of immortality.

The best possibilities include three players from the past and two who were active in 2020. Let’s begin with the former group:

  • No. 15 Cecil Cooper (1977-1987) was a major run producer for the powerful Brewers clubs of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first baseman twice led the American League in runs batted in. He ranks third in franchise history with 944 RBIs, fourth with 30.8 wins above replacement, and fourth with 1,815 hits. He also picked up a pair of Gold Gloves.

  • No. 23 Ted Simmons spent the bulk of his Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals, who traded him to the Brewers at the age of 31. Simmons had five reasonably productive years (1981-1985) as a catcher, first baseman, and designated hitter in Milwaukee, making two All-Star teams.

  • No. 28 Prince Fielder (2005-2011) was a fearsome slugger in his prime, launching 50 home runs in 2007 and 46 in 2009. Those remain the two highest single-season totals in Brewers history. Fielder is also the club’s career leader in slugging average (.540) and on-base percentage (.390).

Joining these three contenders for jersey honors are two of Milwaukee’s current players:

  • No. 8 Ryan Braun (2007-2020) has remained with the Brewers for his entire 14-year career. Physical woes have the outfielder contemplating retirement, though he might return in 2021. Braun has amassed 46.7 WAR, third-highest in franchise history, trailing only Yount and Molitor. He holds the franchise record for home runs (352), is second in RBIs (1,154), and third in hits (1,963). Yet his legacy is shadowed by his 2013 suspension for use of PEDs.

  • No. 22 Christian Yelich has been with the Brewers for only three seasons (2018-2020), but his performance has far exceeded expectations. The outfielder won the National League’s batting titles in 2018 and 2019, being named MVP in the former season and the runner-up in MVP voting the following year. He is under contract with Milwaukee through 2028, giving him plenty of time to climb in the franchise’s record book.

The outlook

Simmons and Fielder are longshots, at best, to have their numbers retired. Each stayed with the Brewers for a fairly short period, albeit longer than Rollie Fingers. And each has a significant strike against him: Simmons was not at his best in Milwaukee, and Fielder left town as a free agent.

Cooper appears to be fully deserving of honors, though the Brewers have had 33 years to celebrate his career — and (for whatever reason) have not done so.

That leaves the two current players. Braun seems to be a virtual cinch to see his No. 8 raised to the roof track in American Family Field, perhaps as early as the next year or two, depending on when he steps away from the game. The 28-year-old Yelich presumably has plenty of baseball left to play, but he looks to be on course (so far) to join his outfield comrade on the wall in the distant future.

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