The history of Yankee baseball is littered with the greatest players to ever step on the field. No club has more representation in the Hall of Fame or produced more MVP winners, and the absolute best Yankees transcend sports and become cross-cultural figures - Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, even more recently Derek Jeter.
A consequence to this greatness, at least for contemporary players, is the plethora of retired numbers. It must be challenging for young players or those acquired in trade or free agency to navigate uniform choice, between the current active roster and some of the more popular numbers leaguewide already retired. Former Yankee great Brandon McCarthy ran into this exact problem back in 2014.
This got me thinking about retired numbers, and how many Yankee fans can probably list every single one the team has honored. We know what number Lou Gerhig or Reggie Jackson wore, but what about the other guys who donned the same uniform? Who are the near-greats, or the scrubs, who can claim a kinship with Mickey Mantle through sharing #7?
1 - Retired for Billy Martin
Right off the bat, we have a number of good candidates for the second-best #1 in team history. Bobby Murcer put up 27.7 bWAR in 13 seasons with the club, while shuffling through four numbers. Bobby Richardson has the most All-Star selections of any Yankee to wear #1, but the obvious choice is center fielder, and Hall of Famer, Earle Combs.
43.9 bWAR with the Yankees, a 125 career OPS+, and the leadoff hitter for arguably the single greatest team ever assembled? You could make a case that #1 should be retired for Combs first, over Martin.
2 - Retired for Derek Jeter
Murcer shows up again as a potential choice, but I’m trying to be careful with players that wore multiple numbers where possible. This is why I also sadly must take Snuffy Stirnweiss out of contention, for he wore 1 more than he wore 2 for the Yankees.
This leaves us with Red Rolfe, also a wonderful baseball name. A four-time All Star and five-time World Series winner, Rolfe came out of Dartmouth and held down what was a pretty rocky third base spot for the Yankees in the 30s and early 40s.
3 - Retired for Babe Ruth
The fun thing about #3 is Ruth was the first player to wear it - the Yankees, of course, were the first team to incorporate numbers in 1929. That means that until it was retired in 1948, every player who wore #3 was going to be compared to a mythical figure. Tough act to follow.
The obvious answer here is George Selkirk, and not just because he’s Canadian. With only 14 seasons separating Ruth leaving the Yankees and the number being retired, there’s not a lot of great choices, and Selkirk’s 23.3 bWAR and 127 career OPS+ give him the nod almost by default.
4 - Retired for Lou Gerhig
The Iron Horse is the only Yankee to ever wear #4, and that’s just fine with me.
5 - Retired for Joe DiMaggio
Nick Etten is a potential runner up, being a solid-to-good player for the Yankees in the war years, but only wearing #5 two of the four years he was in pinstripes - coincidentally, two years Joltin’ Joe was serving in WWII.
I have to break my own rules early in this countdown, as Frankie Crosetti was a contender for the #1 slot as well, but wore #5 for five seasons before DiMaggio joined the club, and put up 23.6 bWAR for the Yankees overall.
6 - Retired for Joe Torre
Like Martin’s number above, retiring a number for a manager means that we should have a few options to sift through. Picking Mickey Mantle, who wore #6 for a single season before flipping to his iconic #7, seems like cheating, and with respect to Andy Carey and Bobby Brown, a trio of contenders balance performance and longevity with the number.
Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon and Roy White are the best options for the second-best #6, and are really quite comparable in terms of production:
I’m tempted to side with Gordon - he has the MVP award that neither of his competitors can claim, but Lazzeri’s best season is actually a hair better by OPS+ and equally as good by bWAR, so he wins by a nose.
7 - Retired for Mickey Mantle
While there are a lot of choices for the Mick’s runner up, none of them wore #7 for particularly long, with three different players wearing the number in 1946 alone. The only real good option is Tommy Henrich, who was a career 132 OPS+ and 39.2 bWAR player in 11 seasons, all with the Yankees, but only wore #7 for three of those campaigns.
8 - Retired for Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra
Whether you think Dickey was better than Berra or vice versa, the nature of this project means we’re now looking for the third-best player to ever wear #8 for the Yankees. Aaron Robinson was a fantastic hitter - 136 OPS+ - in parts of four seasons in the Bronx, won the 1947 World Series, and is the only reasonable choice given the 35 combined seasons Dickey and Berra spent with the Yankees, although each catcher wore a different number their rookie seasons, Berra donning both 38 and 35 before becoming a full-time Yankee and adopting #8.
We’re moving closer to the present with some of these numbers, which means we should be able to have more energetic conversations about the collection of also-rans. Part two will come out next week, and part three the week after. In the meantime, feel free to tell me if you disagree with any choices in the comments!