Having your jersey number retired is a rare and unique honor. When a sports team retires a number, it stops using the shirt number worn by a particular player when they stop playing, as a way of honoring them. However, there is no clear requirement which makes this possible. Not every team in baseball has retired a number and some teams retired the same number twice. Let’s explore this tribute to elite players by beginning at its origins.
In 1916, the Indians became the first team to experiment with uniform numbers. Numbers wore placed on the sleeve to identify a player’s location in the batting order. History is not clear. Some reports read sleeve numbers were scrapped after a few weeks and other notes it was for a season. Seven year later, Charles Ebbets once suggested placing numbers on both sleeves and on bills of the players hats. The Dodgers owner had a vision of selling scorecards which required clear means of identifying player which did not exist at the time. In the same season, Branch Rickey’s, Cardinals experimented with a number on the left sleeve. Newspaper reporters mocked the notion, and it drew negative press. In the end, only the Cardinals wore numbers in 1923. For the next six year, numbers on uniforms were a forbidden topic. Then, in 1929, the Yankees were the first to place numbers on the player’s back.
The Yankees have the most retired numbers of all MLB franchises with 21. It just makes sense that the organization doing it the longest has the most. A common misconception is that Babe Ruth’s number 3 was the first number retired by the Yankees. In fact, Lou Gehrig’s number 4 was. It is also the only retired number to be worn by one player. Seven other players wore the number 3 after Ruth moved on to play for the Braves. Ruth’s number 3 was retired upon his death in 1948. The team with the least number of retired numbers- Miami Marlins with zero.
Every April 15th MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. This annual celebration began in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first MLB game breaking the color barrier. Robinson wore the number 42. In honor of Robinson’s courage and impact to the game, his number 42 is retired league wide. No team can issue the number 42 ever again. Last player to wear 42 was Mariano Rivera in 2013. This number is retired twice for the Yankees. Oddly this is not a single incident. In 1972, the Yankees retired the number 8 twice for Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, both catchers and Hall of Famers. Chicago Cubs retired the number 31 twice; as well, for Hall of Fame pitchers Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux. Washington Nationals franchise retired number 10 twice too. Hall of Fame manager Casey Stangel’s 37 is retired by both the Yankees and Mets.
The most common number retired is number 20. One-third of MLB teams have retired that number. Numbers 10 and 14 are second with nine teams. There is a total of 188 retired numbers (not counting 42 on every team) in MLB, this includes players and managers. To compare, there are 355 players/managers inducted into the Hall of Fame, which is less than one percent of all who played in the MLB. About a half of a percent of players have their number reach this almost unreachable accomplishment. Some players have their number retired from multiple teams like Hall of Fame and strike out king pitcher Nolan Ryan. Ryan’s number 34 is retired by the Rangers and Astros. Additionally, Ryan’s number 30 was retired by the Angels. Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk had his number retired by two teams. Fisk wore 27 for the Red Sox and 72 for the White Sox. Fisk’s 72 is the highest retired number recorded. The lowest number retired is 1, by seven teams. Players have worn 0 on their backs before but no organization has retired it. The numbers 1 through 37 have be retired by at least one team.
Players are held in the greatest of esteem and regard when their number is retired. Some are lucky enough to be retired by more than one organization. It’s a simple gesture which echoes from generation to generation. It sparks fans in seats of every ballpark to have the never-ending conversation of who wore what number and on what team. A conversation that will eventually lead to who was or is the greatest. Everyone has their own opinion, reason, and mathematical calculations. Stats and other intangibles will be used, but that’s the thing with names and numbers in baseball- they don’t end.