I read in the paper this morning that LaTroy Hawkins is changing his number from 21 to 22 because too many fans were booing him for using "Paul O’Neill’s" number. That is ridiculous and I think the fans should get a grip because as good as O’Neill was, he doesn’t deserve to have his number retired.
O’Neil played nine seasons in New York and did very well, but was he a better Yankee than Willie Randolph? Red Rolfe spent 10 years in pinstripes (his entire career) and ended up with almost the same number of hits as O’Neill while winning five World Series. How many fans even know who he is or what his number was? (Hint, Derek Jeter wears it)
The Yankees took the retired number thing to ridiculous lengths in the Steinbrenner years and they have retired too many of them. To me the minimum standard should be making the Hall of Fame, unless there are special circumstances. Let’s break them down.
Clearly the numbers 3,4,5,7 and 8 should be retired without question. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra/Dickey are some of the greatest players to ever play the game and no one should ever wear those numbers again.
#37 was retired for Casey Stengel, who won 10 pennants and seven titles as manager. He also did a ton for the game, so Casey deserves it.
#16 is retired for Whitey Ford who was the greatest pitcher in Yankees’ history. He won 236 games for the Yankees and won 10 in the World Series. He deserves it.
#10 is retired for Phil Rizzuto and while his Hall Of Fame spot is questionable. (Let’s face it, a bunch of his buddies on the Veteran’s Committe voted him in) his place in Yankees’ history is not. Rizzuto was the voice of this team for years and having his number out there reflects his 53 years with the Yankees.
Now you get to two special situations that have numbers retired, #15 and #32. #15 is Munson of course, the captain, who died on August 2, 1979. Munson was a pretty good player and would probably have played 15 years or so for the team if he had lived. It’s hard to describe what Munson was to people who didn’t see him play and I was young, but I still have the yellowed editorial from the August 3, 1979, edition of the New York Times titled "You Can’t Look It Up" It contains a very good description of Munson:
"But even casual Yankee fans knew that numbers were not the way to describe the importance of this gruff man to the champions who labeled him their captain but whom he led by performance and example rather than by title. No fever chart conveys the fire he ignited again and again by delivering the hit to start the rally, or the diving tag at the plate to save the game. No statistician knows how to tabulate the inspiration he conveyed to teammates and fans watching him play, time and again, with almost disabling injuries…..The baseball lense magnifies and distorts. Thurman Munson was 32 years old and 5 feet 11. This, in the real world, he was young, and on the tall side of average. In baseball, he was regarded as aging and short. But there was one quality he continued to exemplify in both worlds, and for which he will be mourned: He could be counted on."
I can still see that orange chest protector and I miss it. Munson is very worthy of that honor.
#32 is for Elston Howard who may not have the numbers, but was also the first "black player in Yankee history". The Yankees retired his number in 1984, unfortunately after he had died, but long before baseball immortalized Jackie Robinson’s #42 across all teams. It may seem somewhat redundant in light of that, but for the Yankees to honor the player who broke their color barrier is fine with me.
Now you get to the questionable decisions and I split them into two groups, Reggie and everyone else.
Clearly Reggie was a great player and he is in the Hall of Fame, but he only played as a Yankee for five years. Reggie did the majority of his accomplishments elsewhere and while his five seasons were memorable, are they worthy of a retired number? I for one don’t think so.
Everyone else means #1, #9, #23, #49, the guys who are not in the Hall of Fame. Let’s start with Billy Martin, nice player, genuis manager, troubled man. He won the Yankees a World Series as manager and practically ripped the team apart the next year. His firings and hirings became the stuff of comedy. I don’t think his number should be retired.
Roger Maris did something amazing in 1961 and he had great years from 1960-1962 as a Yankee. But, he only played seven seasons in New York and just as he fell short in getting into the Hall of Fame, doesn’t he fall short here? Honor him with a plaque, but his #9 should be back in circulation.
That leaves us with the two hardest cases in my mind, #23 and #49. Both were great Yankees, but both fall short of being considered all-time greats of the game. I would pull a little harder for Mattingly, but both fall short of this honor in my mind. Let me say, I am glad they are both out there, but they do not compare to the other guys.
And this brings me back to Hawkins. How should the Yankees handle the "great, but not great enough" players’ numbers? I would propose pulling the number out of circulation for a time period equal to the time the player was a Yankee. So, Paul O’Neill played nine years in New York and retired after the 2001 season. Therefore, his number should remain out of circulation until after the 2010 season. It’s a way to honor a great player without going overboard. And let’s face it, some numbers will always bring to mind a certain player. I see #31 and it will always make me think of Dave Winfield, no matter what Ian Kennedy goes on to do. The Yankees need to respect that, but balance that. Otherwise, you are going to see #112 at the plate for New York in the not so distant future and we don’t want that.
And, if you want to take a stroll down memory lane, check out www.YankeeNumbers.com it’s a great source for anything to do with numbers and the Yankees and it helped me write this piece!