We finish our retrospective on the Yankees’ retired numbers this week, climbing into the highest honored digits the team has. We also move closer to the present day, meaning we should have a few more names to choose from in anointing the second-best player for each number.
32 - Retired for Elston Howard
Howard is best remembered as a catcher, but in his first few seasons with the club, Yogi Berra was the best catcher in the AL, meaning Howard was relegated to a backup and outfielder role before taking over as the starting catcher in the 60s. Ironically, the second-best 32 in club history was another backup of Berra, Ralph Houk.
Houk spent eight years with the Yankees, never getting into more than 41 games in a season, proving just how hard it must have been to be a starting catcher in years gone by. Houk also kind of sucked, with a career OPS+ of 79, that much have been dragged down by seasons of seven, nine, or five (!!) plate appearances while Yogi Berra built a Hall of Fame career.
37 - Retired for Casey Stengel
Only two players have ever worn 37 for the Yankees, both in 1946, a couple of seasons before Stengel took over the manager's job and led the Yankees into a video game-level of success. Gus Niarhos had the better career of those two guys, getting into 315 career games as compared to Herb Karpel’s two.
42 - Retired for Mariano Rivera
Two good candidates for Rivera’s runner-up - pitcher John Habyan and infielder Jerry Coleman. Coleman put up 6.5 bWAR in parts of nine seasons with the Yankees of the 1950s, while Habyan worked out of the bullpen for the team in the early 90s. His 129 ERA+ in his four years in the Bronx is markedly better production than Coleman could manage, and his positional parallel with Mo gives him the edge in my book.
44 - Retired for Reggie Jackson
Jackson is one of those guys that I have to remind myself was only with the Yankees for a short time - his impact was so immediate, and his post-playing career has been so Yankee-focused that it’s sometimes surprising to remember he wasn’t in the Bronx as long as his retired counterparts.
Fittingly, the other 44s in Yankee history have had short tenures with the team as well. Five players combined to wear the number in just 154 career games with the squad, with Frank Verdi standing out with just a single game as a Yankee. By default we almost have to side with Bob Seeds, who put up a 124 OPS+ in his solo campaign in the Bronx in 1936.
46 - Retired for Andy Pettitte
Like in an earlier post, trying to justify Don Mattingly as the second-best 46 in team history - he wore the number for the first three seasons he spent as a Yankee - seems like a cop-out. Rick Dempsey won two World Series, neither with the Yankees, and was mediocre at best in his time with the club, but has the longest tenure with the number after Andy, so he gets the nod here.
49 - Retired for Ron Guidry
As we climb into the highest digits, these numbers are generally assigned to players that are making their debuts for a cup of coffee with the major-league squad, and as such we don’t have much of a sample size for competition. Lou Berberet has the highest OPS+ of any “other” 49 with a 150, but that comes in just 12 PAs.
Jeff Johnson has the most career games as 49, coming in the early nineties, a decade before Gator’s digits were retired in 2003. Good for you, Jeff, you get this one.
51 - Retired for Bernie Williams
Chuck Cary is the only option that comes particularly close to having made an impact at the MLB level, and his story is a tragedy of the times he played in. He pitched on and off for the Yankees in the late 80s and early 90s, perhaps the worst time in terms of team performance in Yankee history. He was released from the club after Tommy John surgery and never really made it back to MLB-caliber, one of the many casualties of what was at the time still a relatively rare procedure.
This project ended up much harder than I thought it would at conception. Combining the challenges of few contenders at the lower bound of retired numbers with the lack of quality at the higher bound means that there just aren’t that many great second options for each digit. Who do you think will be the next Yankee to have their number retired, and who would make this list as the next-best?