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Forty-Sixed: a needlessly lengthy look at the Yankees' needlessly extensive history (and future) of retired numbers

The Yankees have some hard decisions coming up about which numbers to retire. (AP)

Andy Pettitte's retirement last week raised an interesting question about the future of the Yankees' retired numbers. Taken out of context, the decision to retire Pettitte's number 46 seems like an obvious one. On the franchise career leader lists, Pettitte ranks third in wins, fourth in innings pitched, and second in both games started and strikeouts. He was also a key member of five World Series-winning rotations, a product of the team's own farm system, played 13 of his 16 seasons for the Bombers, and was beloved by fans, teammates, and coaches alike.

The catch is that the Yankees, who invented retiring numbers when they pulled Lou Gehrig's number 4 out of circulation in 1939, have retired more numbers than any other major American sports team. The Yankees have made 15 numbers unavailable to future players, and major league baseball added a 16th when they retired 42 throughout the league in honor of Jackie Robinson. Mariano Rivera was conveniently grandfathered in with number 42, so that kills two birds with one stone, but you can add the guarantee that Derek Jeter's number 2 will be retired and say that the Yankees have 17 numbers that will never be worn by another Yankee.

That doesn't count Paul O'Neill's 21, Bernie Williams' 51, or Joe Torre's 6. All three of those numbers have been kept out of circulation since the departures of those three Yankee greats save for an embarrassing incident in 2008 when journeyman reliever LaTroy Hawkins requested and received 21 as a tribute to Roberto Clemente only to be forced to switch to 22 by an unjustly enraged Yankee fanbase. Add Pettitte's 46 and Jorge Posada's 20 to those three and Jeter's 2, and the total of retired Yankee numbers could reach 22 in the coming decade.

The question thus becomes whether or not the Yankees need to be more discriminating going forward. Even with 22 retired numbers, including all of the single digits, the Yankees will still have 77 two-digit numbers (not including 0 and 00) remaining to use for their 25- and 40-man rosters and Spring Training invitees, the last of which typically push the total number of players in camp into the sixties. Still, if the Yankees retire the numbers mentioned, simply assigning the 25 lowest available numbers would get them up to number 43, and to outfit the 40-man roster, they'd have to get up to 61. At a certain point, the Yankees' proudly traditional lack of names on the back of their uniforms is going to be undermined by the regular appearance of players wearing Spring Training numbers during the regular season.

Of course, unless the Yankees enact a total freeze on retiring numbers, they'll get there eventually, no matter how discerning they are about whose numbers they retire. I suppose the big question, and one none of us will be around to answer, will be which will expire first, the Yankees' ability to give every player a two-digit number, or the New York Yankees themselves.

As for the current glut of deceased digits, the problem isn't so much the upcoming decisions as the ones that have already been made. In exactly the same manner as the Hall of Fame, the Yankees retired numbers include both strong and weak candidates, some of whom the honor would be meaningless without, and some of whom call into question just how meaningful the honor actually is.

Things started off admirably. Retiring Lou Gehrig's number was a then-unique and remarkable tribute to a unique and remarkable player who was forced to retire under unique and remarkable circumstances. Gehrig was, and remains, the best first baseman in major league history. A key player on six world champion teams, he was the team captain, embodied everything noble and admirable about the sport and the team, and retired, ending a seemingly unrepeatable consecutive-games-played streak, only because he had come down with a rare and fatal disease which would soon take both his life and his name.

After Gehrig, the Yankees retired the numbers of Babe Ruth (3), Joe DiMaggio (5), and Mickey Mantle (7), all inner circle Hall of Famers. Ruth was the greatest player who ever lived, and if it weren't for him, Mantle and DiMaggio would at the very least be in the discussion for that title. At that point, the Yankees had retired one number in each of the last four decades. They would retire four more in the seventies alone, though it's tough to argue with any of those decisions.

In 1970, the Yankees retired 37 for Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel, who led the team to 10 pennants in his 12 seasons at the helm, winning seven World Championships, including a record five in a row in his first five seasons as manager. That remains the greatest run of managerial, or for that matter team success in the game's history.

In 1972, they retired the number 8 for Hall of Fame catchers Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. Berra is in the discussion about the greatest catcher of all time, and there was no harm in honoring Dickey as well given that his number was already being retired for Berra.

In 1974, they retired 16 for Whitey Ford, the greatest pitcher in franchise history, and another Hall of Famer.

In 1979, team captain Thurman Munson, a former Rookie of the Year and American League Most Valuable Player who was the starting catcher on three consecutive pennant winning teams, was killed mid-season when he crashed his private plane. The Yankees retired his number 15 in his memory.

So far, there's really nothing to debate. If a team is going to retire numbers, these are the players whose numbers they should retire. Still, the retiring of Dickey and Munson's numbers opened the door for players who were less than inner-circle Hall of Famers or the best at their position in the franchise's history to have their numbers retired. The honor was then further eroded in the eighties when, in a three-year span from 1984 to 1986, the team retired four more numbers.

On a single day in 1984, the Yankees retired 9 for Roger Maris and 32 for Elston Howard. There was little rhyme or reason to either decision. Ford and Berra had their numbers retired when they were elected to the Hall of Fame, Mantle and DiMaggio during their first year of retirement, Gehrig and Munson immediately upon the tragic ends of their careers. It took the Yankees 13 years to retire Ruth's number 3 because at that point they had only done it for the dying Gehrig. Ruth would die of cancer just two months after his number was retired in June 1948 and his impending death was clearly a factor in the decision to so honor him. Dickey, of course, was just lumped in with Berra. Stengel had his number retired on the occasion of his 80th birthday (he had retired and immediately been inducted into the Hall of Fame four years earlier, and he would live another five).

Maris died of cancer a year and a half after his number was retired, so perhaps his illness prompted the retiring of his number, but Howard died four years earlier, and though they were teammates, and both won MVPs in the early sixties (Maris in 1960 and '61, Howard in '63), they weren't really a natural pairing like Berra and Dickey, the only other Yankees to share a number-retirement ceremony. More significantly, neither player was an obvious choice to have his number retired. Neither is in the Hall of Fame, though one wonders if the Yankees retired their numbers to revive their Hall of Fame candidacies, which were lagging in 1984, the eleventh year of eligibility for both men. Maris's support bottomed out in 1982 when he received just 16.6 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Howard's dipped down to 8.6 percent in 1983. Both got a boost thereafter, but neither ever achieved a majority of the vote, nor, in my opinion, should they have.

As a player who spent twelve and a half of his 14 seasons with the Yankees and another 11 as a Yankee coach, played on nine pennant winners, won the league MVP in one of those seasons, and most significantly, integrated the team as the first dark-skinned Yankee in 1955, Howard had the stronger case for having his number retired. Maris spent just seven of his 12 seasons with the Yankees and qualified for the batting title in just four of them due to a variety of injuries. Yes, he played on five pennant winners in those seven seasons, won the league MVP in each of his first two Yankee campaigns, and, most notably, broke Ruth's single-season home run record the the second of those two MVP seasons, but those accomplishments should have been enough to remember him by, and were for 15 years after his retirement, 11 of which saw his number 9 adorn the back of All-Star third baseman Graig Nettles.

Nettles helps explain the timing here a bit as his last year with the Yankees was 1983, freeing up 9 to be retired in 1984. Still, 9 should never have been retired at all, and that still doesn't explain why the Yankees waited until four years after Howard's death of a heart ailment at the age of 51 to retire his number, which hadn't been assigned in the interim.

Phil Rizzuto addresses the crowd during the ceremony retiring his number 10 in 1985.

In 1985, the Yankees retired Phil Rizzuto's number 10, famously doing so on the day that Tom Seaver, then with the White Sox, won his 300th game by beating the Yankees at the Stadium. As with Maris and Nettles, the timing can be partially explained by the fact that the number was finally unassigned after being worn by a variety of players including Tony Kubek, Chris Chambliss, and finally Rick Cerone. As arguably the greatest shortstop in team history prior to Derek Jeter's arrival and a beloved broadcaster who had, in those two capacities, been a significant presence with the Yankees since the end of World War II and been Yankee property in one way or another since 1937, Rizzuto was hardly an undeserving retiree, but again, the decision to retire his number seemed to come out of nowhere. There were only two seasons after Rizzuto's forced retirement in the spring of 1957 that the number 10 went unused: 1957 and 1966, the latter being the season after Kubek's retirement. Rizzuto's last year on the writer's ballot for the Hall of Fame was 1976, and he wasn't inducted by the veteran's committee until 1994, when the committee was largely stacked in his favor. Rizzuto wasn't ill or celebrating a milestone birthday in 1985.

The Yankees attendance had fallen of a bit, however. After leading the league in attendance for six seasons after opening the remodeled Yankee Stadium, the Yankees' slipped to third in the AL in attendance in 1982 and '83, then to sixth in 1984. That might have been another motivation behind the ceremony to honor Maris and Howard, but if so, why do both ceremonies together on Old Timers' Day, why not spread out those events to three separate games? The Yankees finished fourth in attendance in 1985, but if they retired Rizzuto's number to sell more tickets, they were doubly duped by Seaver, whose arrival in the Bronx with 299 wins would have filled the park with Mets fans (54,699 fans attended that game) with or without the ceremony to honor Rizzuto.

In 1986, the Yankees retired Billy Martin's number 1, supposedly as a salve in the wake of yet another dismissal from the manager's job. The famously tumultuous relationship between Martin and George Steinbrenner was actually quite cozy in 1986 as Martin spent much of that season in the owner's box explaining to the Boss what his replacement, Lou Piniella, was doing wrong. As a manager, Martin led the Yankees to two pennants, one world championship, and nearly got them back in the playoffs the previous season. He also played on six pennant winning teams, starting at second base in four World Series and actually picked up some low-ballot MVP votes in 1953 and an All-Star selection in 1956. Still, he was not a star player, and left the Yankees under shady circumstances as both a player, in the wake of the Copacabana incident, and as a then-four-time and ultimately five-time manager of the team. I actually think Martin should be in the Hall of Fame as a manager, but that takes into account his quick success with the Twins, Tigers, Rangers, and A's. On the basis of his Yankee career alone, he is not a Hall of Famer, and though he's a key figure in the team's history, retiring his number clearly had more to do with his love/hate relationship with Steinbrenner than with his accomplishments on the field.

The pace of retired numbers has slowed since then. The Yankees retired Reggie Jackson's number 44 when he went into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee in 1993 after having assigned it only to coaches since Jackson left the team as a free agent after the 1981 season. When Don Mattingly made his retirement official in 1997, they retired his number 23, honoring the team's signature player from the eighties and early nineties.

The only number retired in the dozen years since then was Ron Guidry's 49 in 2003. That's another head-scratcher. The only player to wear 49 since Guidry's retirement in 1988 was failed pitching prospect Jeff Johnson in 1992, but the only thing that otherwise made 2003 notable for Guidry was that he had fallen off the Hall of Fame ballot the previous year after getting 4.9 percent of the vote in his ninth year of eligibility. Perhaps the Yankees finally retired his number as a consolation prize, but the way the Yankees handled 49 speaks to the sort of indecision they've shown with regard to retiring numbers in recent years.

Consider O'Neill's 21, which has been out of circulation, save for the Hawkins incident, since 2002, but with O'Neill having been one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot, lacks a target date for proper retirement, and could just as easily go back into circulation, provided the Yankees find a better recipient than a journeyman reliever. The Yankees also haven't assigned Mike Mussina's 35 or Hideki Matsui's 55 in the short spans since their departures from the team, though that's likely more a brief courtesy than an indication of eventual retirement. Bernie Williams' 51 seems like a sure bet to be retired, a decision made easier by the fact that it's a high number to begin with, but Williams has to officially announce his retirement first, something he hinted at Pettitte's press conference two weeks ago that he might finally be ready to do this year.

Ultimately, the Yankees' real problem with regard to retiring numbers has been their great success over the years. Consider what the retired numbers would look like if the Yankees only retired the numbers of players who went into the Hall of Fame as Yankees:

1 - Earl Combs
3 - Babe Ruth
4 - Lou Gehrig
5 - Joe DiMaggio
6 - Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon
7 - Mickey Mantle
8 - Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra
10 - Phil Rizzuto
11 - Lefty Gomez
15 - Red Ruffing
16 - Whitey Ford
37 - Casey Stengel
42 - Jackie Robinson
44 - Reggie Jackson
54 - Goose Gossage

That's an interesting list that, among other things, would have forced Munson to wear a different number and does not include a number for Hall of Famer Herb Pennock, who played for the Yankees with digits on his back for just five years and never wore the same number for more than two seasons. By the same token, Lazzeri wore something other than 6 for four of the nine seasons that he wore a number as a Yankee, but since 6 ultimately would have been retired for Gordon anyway, there's no harm in doing so for Lazzeri as well. The Yankees currently have 16 retired numbers (including Robinson). The above list includes 15 numbers, and if we add a number as a memorial for Munson, we have only changed the specifics of the names and numbers retired, not the quantity. With 9 left available, Joe Torre, who wore 9 as a player, would have taken that instead of six, meaning that the Yankees would still be on the precipice of having all of their single-digit numbers retired as Torre is sure to reach the Hall of Fame for his work as Yankee manager, and Jeter is sure to get there when he first hits the ballot sometime in the next decade.

If we limit the above list to just the iconic Yankees of their eras, again including Munson as a memorial, we could pare it down to this:

3 - Babe Ruth
4 - Lou Gehrig
5 - Joe DiMaggio
7 - Mickey Mantle
8 - Yogi Berra
15 - Thurman Munson
16 - Whitey Ford
23 - Don Mattingly
37 - Casey Stengel
42 - Jackie Robinson
44 - Reggie Jackson

That eliminates Martin, Maris, Dickey, Rizzuto, Howard, and Guidry, all of whom still deserve plaques in Monument Cave Park, and frees up 1, 9, 10, 32, and 49, again with Torre likely taking 9, but this time with 6 still available as a result. Still, doing so makes it no easier to decide where to draw the line on the Torre-era candidates. Jeter's an easy choice, and Rivera's 42 is already up there, but do you draw a line somewhere that puts some of Williams, O'Neill, Pettitte, and Posada in and others out? Do you let 20, 21, 46, and 51 all appear on the backs of future players? Do you wait for the Hall of Fame voters to make your decision for you? The Yankees appeared to do exactly that with O'Neill, whose lone appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot came in 2007, the year before the team attempted to put 21 back into circulation with Hawkins.

Of course, the Yankees aren't going to unretire any numbers, so we're not dealing with that abbreviated list above, but just as in discussions about Hall of Fame candidates, it's a mistake to use the least-deserving retiree as the litmus test for future retired numbers. If Billy Martin's number is retired, why not Willie Randolph's 30 (currently being worn by David Robertson)? And if Roger Maris is up there, shouldn't Alex Rodriguez's 13 eventually be as well?

I'm sure most fans would love to see all of these numbers retired and perhaps others as well, past present, and future (at what point do you start talking about Robinson Cano's 24, or CC Sabathia's 52, and wouldn't it be great to see Phil Hughes or Jesus Montero have the sort of career that would put them in this discussion?), but when it comes to uniform numbers, the Yankees are in the unusual position of dealing with a limited resource that can't be leveraged for profit. Particularly given the team's current ability to import star-level talent, even Hall of Fame talent like Rodriguez and Sabathia, the Yankees in the coming decades are going to have to come up with a reasonably strict policy with regard to retiring numbers unless they're willing to dress their team in numbers more typically seen on defensive linemen in the NFL.

For another lengthy look at the history of the Yankees' uniform numbers, see my "Yankees by the Numbers" post on Bronx Banter, which names the best Yankee to wear each number, retired or otherwise.