[Updated 2018.] The issue of retired numbers is a tricky one. Every team has their own criteria for what qualifies a player to have his number retired. The Yankees have retired 21 numbers, including two twice. The Seattle Mariners just recently retired their first two numbers, unless you count number 42, which was retired league-wide in honor of Jackie Robinson. (For the record, the New York Yankees’ 21 includes Robinson’s 42, but they also retired 42 for Mariano Rivera, so the number stands.)
I believe the time has come to stop retiring numbers and start honoring players in a different way. But before we get to my idea, let’s talk a little bit about retired numbers.
Some retired numbers make sense: Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks are Hall of Famers who played their entire careers with one team. Guys like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays didn’t play their entire careers with the same team, but it makes sense for the Yankees and the San Francisco Giants, respectively, to hang their numbers on the wall.
Other retired numbers make less sense. Wade Boggs‘ number has not been retired by the Yankees (.313/.396/.407 and a World Series championship in five seasons) and was just recently retired by the Boston Red Sox (.338/.428/.462 with five batting titles and over 2,000 hits in eleven seasons) but it was retired by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 2000 (.289/.360/.391 in 213 games in Tampa). Thirteen Red Sox donned Boggs’ number 26 after he left: Brock Holt (2013-2015), Scott Podsednik (2012), Ramiro Mendoza (2003-2004), Freddy Sanchez (2003), Lou Merloni (1999-2002), Sean Berry (2000), Rob Stanifer (2000), Orlando Merced (1998), Chris Snopek (1998), Aaron Sele (1996-1997), Lee Tinsley (1995), Alejandro Pena (1995), and Wes Chamberlain (1994).
Steve Garvey‘s number is not retired by the Los Angeles Dodgers, because they only (with one exception) retire the numbers of Hall of Famers, but it is retired down the road in San Diego, where he finished his career with 605 games of league-average offense. Garvey’s number 6 has been worn by ten legendary Dodgers since him: Curtis Granderson (2017), Charlie Culberson (2016), Darwin Barney (2015), Jerry Hairston (2012-2013), Aaron Miles (2011), Tony Abreu (2007), Kenny Lofton (2006), Jason Grabowski (2005), Brent Mayne (2004), and Jolbert Cabrera (2003).
Then there are the retired numbers that, at first glance, don’t make a lot of sense. These are the numbers where the story behind the number catches your eye. One of those is Jim Umbricht, whose number 32 was retired by the Houston Astros.
Jim Umbricht was a fine relief pitcher for the Houston Colt .45’s, putting up a 2.33 ERA in 69 games between 1962 and 1963. He spent a couple years of his prime in the Army, so he didn’t make his major league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates until nine days after his 29th birthday. He pitched parts of two seasons for the Pirates before being taken with the 35th pick in the 1961 expansion draft by Houston.
After putting up a 2.01 ERA in 34 games for the 1962 Colts, Umbricht was golfing with Houston GM Paul Richards during spring training in 1963 when Richards noticed a mole on the back of Umbricht’s leg and suggested that he see a doctor. The mole turned out to be malignant, and doctors discovered that the skin cancer had already begun spreading. On March 7, 1963, he underwent a six-hour surgery to remove cancer from his groin, thigh, and leg. He left the hospital on March 25, began throwing batting practice on April 22 (with 100 stitches still in his leg), and was back in the big leagues on May 9. He posted a 2.61 ERA in 35 games for Houston in 1963.
In November 1963, Umbricht was informed that his cancer had returned and was incurable. The Colts released him from his contract with the understanding that he would be re-signed when his health returned. Sadly, that never happened, and Umbricht passed away on April 8, 1964, at the age of 33.
The Colts wore a black armband throughout 1964 in honor of Umbricht, and on April 12, 1965, prior to their first game as the Astros, the team retired his number 32. It was the first retired number for the franchise.
There is an interesting sidenote to Umbricht’s sad story: In 1965, linebacker Jack Pardee of the Los Angeles Rams noticed a mole on his arm and remembered reading about Umbricht. “The way the papers described it, it sounded exactly like what I had,” Pardee said. “I made an appointment to see the doctor the next morning.” Pardee was diagnosed with malignant melanoma like Umbricht, but it was caught early enough to be removed through surgery. He missed the 1965 season, but went on to have a long career as both a player and a coach. “I don’t know how long I might have put it off if I hadn’t read that story,” he said. “I felt fine and … when you’re feeling good you hate to see a doctor.”
Another interesting story is the one exception to the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame rule. Jim Gilliam played his entire 14-year career with the Dodgers, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 over alliterative alternatives Harvey Haddix, Jabbo Jablonski, Bill Bruton, and Rip Repulski.
Gilliam was a solid defensive player who made two All-Star teams and got MVP votes in four different seasons, finishing as high as fifth in 1956. Primarily a second baseman, he played quite a bit at third base and left field, too. Shortstop, pitcher, and catcher are the only positions he never played.
For Gilliam’s final three years in the big leagues, he was a player/coach. He then stayed on for 13 more seasons as a coach with the Dodgers. He had hopes of managing someday, at a time when no black man had ever managed a major league team. Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times once asked him if he was bothered by the idea of someone else — Frank Robinson or Willie Mays or Maury Wills — becoming the first black manager. “No, it doesn’t bother me, although I think I may be better-prepared than any of the others,” he said. “I’ve been in baseball for 25 years and during that time I haven’t just gone through the motions. I’ve studied and applied myself. I know I’ll get the chance and I’ll be ready.”
When Dodgers manager Walter Alston retired after the 1976 season, the battle to replace him came down to two of his coaches: Gilliam and Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda won the battle, but Gilliam stayed on as a coach. He remained loyal to the Dodgers, but he held out hope that he would one day get a chance to manage. Unfortunately, that day never came. On September 15, 1978, Gilliam suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. He died three weeks later, on October 8, the day after the Dodgers won the NLCS to advance to the World Series.
The Dodgers quickly retired the number 19 of the man who spent 28 years in their organization as a player and a coach. He remains the only non-Hall of Famer to have his number retired by the team.
Then there are the semi-retired numbers. The Yankees did not let anyone wear Derek Jeter‘s number 2 before they got around to officially retiring it. No one has worn number 34 for the Dodgers since Fernando Valenzuela left in 1990. The Cardinals did not give Mark McGwire‘s number 25 to anyone until Dexter Fowler in 2017, and Albert Pujols‘ number 5 has gone unused since he left for the Angels after 2011.
Retiring numbers is a nice way to honor the great players of a team’s past, but it may not be the most practical way. For teams like the Yankees, the massive number of retired numbers presents a legitimate problem, as expressed by Twitter all-star Brandon McCarthy when he was traded to New York last season:
*Kramer’s moviefone voice* “well why don’t you just tell me what number isn’t retired”
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) July 8, 2014
Now that Jeter’s number has been retired, the Yankees have no single-digit numbers left except for 0, which they have never issued to anyone. So that is 22 retired numbers and one they have never issued (there are four that were unofficially retired when this was written that have since been retired: Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada). The Yankees are legitimately running out of numbers that don’t make their players look like offensive linemen or non-roster invitees to spring training.
So here is my idea. I’m sure I’m not the first to come up with it, because it is good enough that plenty of people smarter than me probably already thought of it. Every April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, the league honors Robinson’s memory by having every player wear his number 42. Originally, Ken Griffey Jr. received special permission to wear number 42 on April 15, 2007, the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s MLB debut. The idea spread (much to the chagrin of many players), and more than 240 wore 42 that day. In 2008, the number jumped to more than 330, and in 2009, it became official that every player and coach would wear the number on that day.
But let’s go back to Griffey’s original idea: one player wearing a number as tribute to a great player. What is a better way to honor a player: putting his number in mothballs, or letting a player who exemplifies his greatness wear that number as a tribute?
Every year, teams should grant a one-year license to a particular player to wear a particular number. The Astros could give Umbricht’s number 32 to a player who has overcome great odds to play in the big leagues. The Yankees could give Ruth’s number 3 to the player who led the team in homers the previous year. The Dodgers could give Garvey’s number 6 to a player who played every game the previous year. The possibilities are endless, and each team would be free to determine their own criteria.
As a baseball fan, I would get a thrill out of seeing a Yankee slugger wearing Lou Gehrig‘s number 4, or a Dodgers pitcher wearing Sandy Koufax‘s number 32. Wouldn’t it be cool to see Noah Syndergaard wearing Tom Seaver‘s number 41? Or what if Alex Rodriguez had been wearing number 3 as he approached 714 home– okay, not all ideas are equally good. But the point stands.
You want to honor a player by slapping his number on an outfield wall? That’s great, and there’s no reason to stop that. But let’s separate that honor from the idea of retiring a number, and let’s accept the fact that the best way to honor a player is by letting another great player follow in his footsteps.
Follow Jeff Snider on Twitter: @snidog