When it comes to retiring players’ numbers, think of the honor in presidential terms. Some teams limit the practice to the Washington, Lincoln and FDR-level players. Others include players in the class of Jefferson, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. Some drop to the James Monroe/Woodrow Wilson class, and a few include the likes of James Polk and Calvin Coolidge.
For those keeping score, this will bring the number of Yankees retired numbers to 21 (Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey share No. 8, and Mariano Rivera’s No. 42 has been retired throughout baseball as a tribute to Jackie Robinson). Derek Jeter will soon raise the count to 22.
Already jokes have started about when the Bronx Bombers will hand out triple-digit numbers or numerals with decimal points. Monument Park may need to relocate to Utah’s Monument Valley. Are the Yankees too generous?
Williams was an excellent player and a class individual. His 80 postseason RBIs is a major league record, he led the American League in batting in 1998, earned five All-Star Game berths and four Gold Gloves. But only twice did he finish in the top 10 of AL Most Valuable Player voting and he fell out of the Hall of Fame balloting after getting less than 4% of votes in 2013. His career WAR barely cracks baseball’s top 200 for position players.
Retired Yankees numbers once were reserved for the best of the best. Starting in 1939 with Lou Gehrig and through the 1970s, only eight Yankees were deemed worthy: Gehrig, Babe Ruth Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Dicke, Berra, Whitey Ford and manager Casey Stengel. Not quite good enough were such esteemed ballplayers as Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Allie Reynolds, Charlie Keller, Joe Gordon, Tommy Heinrich, Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard and Roger Maris.
But once George Steinbrenner began running the team, standards for retired numbers changed quickly. One doesn’t think of The Boss as overly generous, but he was in hanging up jerseys.
Thurman Munson, the Yankees catcher and captain who died in a plane crash in 1979 at age 32, had his No. 15 retired in 1980. Maris and Howard followed in 1984, and then Rizzuto in 1985.
Most controversial was the retirement of perennial Yankees manager Billy Martin’s No. 1 in 1986. Yes, the scrappy but limited Martin (a microscopic career WAR of 2.9) batted .500 in the 1953 World Series and managed the Yanks to victory in the 1977 Fall Classic. But he battled players, baited umpires and his many off-the-field shenanigans including heavy drinking and brawling, most notably fisticuffs with a marshmallow salesman in 1979.
After the Yankees traded Martin in 1957, his No. 1 was worn with equal if not more distinction—and far less drama—by Bobby Richardson and Bobby Murcer. Perhaps Steinbrenner felt a tinge of remorse that he had fired Martin four times; a fifth would come in 1988.
Reggie Jackson, despite playing only five tumultuous seasons in New York, had his No. 44 retired in 1993. Later in the ‘90s Don Mattingly’s No. 23 was afforded the same honor. Since the turn of the century, Ron Guidry, former manager Joe Torre and Rivera have joined the ranks of retired Yankees numbers. Steinbrenner died in 2010 but his family seems in no hurry to slow the retired numbers parade. Soon Williams, Pettitte, Posada and Jeter will become part of a not-so exclusive club.
Here’s the debate. For a team with the championship pedigree of the New York Yankees, shouldn’t a berth in Cooperstown be the minimum required for a retired number? Munson, Maris, Howard, Martin, Mattingly and Guidry are not Hall of Famers. Pettitte, despite a record 19 postseason victories and 256 regular-season wins, might be 50-50 at best to be elected. Posada’s chances are not as good.
Sure, there are qualifiers. Munson might have compiled Hall of Fame numbers had he lived longer. Howard broke the Yankees color barrier in 1955 and was the first black player to win the American League MVP in 1963. But Rizzuto’s and Maris’ numbers were worn well by subsequent Yankees: Tony Kubek and Chris Chambliss at No. 10; Graig Nettles with No. 9. The greats have their numbered retired soon after they depart the arena, not decades later.
How have other successful baseball franchises handled retired numbers? The St. Louis Cardinals, whose 11 World Series victories are second to the Yankees’ 27, have retired the numbers of 11 players and managers. Ten are in the Hall of Fame. The eight-time champion San Francisco Giants have retired nine players’ numbers—all nine are in Cooperstown. For the six-time champion Los Angeles Dodgers it’s nine of 10, and for the eight-time champion Boston Red Sox, six of seven.
The Yankees are not alone as easy graders. The Boston Celtics, winners of 17 NBA championships, have retired 21 jersey numbers. There are A list players: Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. And near-legends Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, Dave Cowens and Robert Parish.
Yet there are also good but not great players such as Jo Jo White and Cedric Maxwell, plus role players Don Nelson, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders and Frank Ramsey. Should their numbers hang from the rafters at The Garden? Longtime coach and general manager Red Auerbach thought so and that’s all that mattered.
Auerbach is honored with a No. 2 banner and team founder Walter Brown with a No. 1 flag. Celtics fans can expect to see Paul Pierce’s No. 34 and Kevin Garnett’s No. 5 flying high before the decade is out.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers, whose 16 NBA titles are one behind Boston, have been more circumspect in retiring numbers. Nine Lakers have earned the honor, most recently Shaquille O’Neal in 2013. The team, however, does honor numbers of five players from the five-time NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers, most notably George Mikan’s No. 99.
The Chicago Bulls, with six NBA crowns, are stricter. Only four players, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen from the championship era of the 1990s, and Bob Love and Jerry Sloan from the 1970s, have their numbers retired. If Auerbach were calling the shots in Chicago, it’s likely Norm Van Lier, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxton, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper would be honored as well.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who have never won an NBA championship, have retired more than double the jerseys as Chicago—nine. The Sacramento Kings, whose heritage includes four cities but only one NBA title, have retired 10 player numbers.
NFL teams more selective
In the NFL, more means less. The Green Bay Packers, winners of a record 13 NFL championships, will retire only their sixth number when Brett Favre’s No. 4 is set aside later this year. Fullback Jim Taylor’s No. 31 is retired in New Orleans, where he played just one season with the Saints, but not in Green Bay where he ran Vince Lombardi’s power sweep to perfection for four championship teams.
The six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers have retired two numbers, Ernie Stautner’s No. 70 and Joe Greene’s No. 75. However, Terry Bradshaw’s No. 12, Franco Harris’ No. 32, Mike Webster’s No. 52 and Jack Lambert’s No. 58 have not been issued to any Steeler since those Hall of Famers retired.
Officially, the five-time champion Dallas Cowboys don’t retire numbers. The best players and team officials are placed in the Ring of Honor that surrounds the field at AT&T Stadium. Hall of Famers Bob Hayes and Emmitt Smith shared No. 22, and wide receivers Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin both wore No. 88—with Dez Bryant possibly to follow.
As with the Steelers, certain Dallas numbers carry more distinction. Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly’s No. 74 has not been worn by a Cowboy in the regular season since Lilly retired after the 1974 season. No Cowboy has put on No. 12 since quarterback Roger Staubach played his last game in 1979.
Washington has won five NFL titles but only one player has merited jersey retirement: the great Sammy Baugh’s No. 33, befitting a Hall of Famer who in 1943 led the NFL in passing, punting and interceptions, a football triple crown never to be duplicated.
The Chicago Bears with nine NFL championships, albeit only one in the Super Bowl era, have retired the most NFL numbers: 14. But after Mike Ditka’s No. 89 was honored in 2013, the Bears announced no more numbers would be set aside.
Perhaps the standards set by Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Washington for retired numbers—as well as the Bulls—are a tad strict. Yet this higher bar probably makes a better case for greatness than the all-inclusive Yankees and Celtics.