Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Flood of retired numbers can lessen significance

by Wayne Graczyk

You probably saw the article last week with the news the New York Yankees will retire the uniform numbers of former players Andy Pettitte (46), Jorge Posada (20) and Bernie Williams (51). That brings to 20 the total of retired numbers by the Yanks, and Derek Jeter’s No. 2 will follow and that means no one will wear a single-digit numeral on the club again.

The phasing out of so many numbers calls to mind the question of just how many players are deserving of such an honor. With all due respect, was Posada in the same class as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle?

Was Pettitte as good a pitcher as Whitey Ford or Ron Guidry?

You can decide.

Pettitte did not even play his entire career in New York, having also spent three seasons with the Houston Astros, and some of the other numbers were retired after the guys who wore them died in accidents. I refer to Billy Martin (No. 1) and Thurman Munson (15).

The Los Angeles Dodgers also retired the No. 19 of infielder and later first base coach Junior Gilliam after he died suddenly at age 49 just prior to the start of the 1978 World Series when the Dodgers were about to play the Yankees.

Gilliam is one of nine former Dodgers whose numbers are no longer in use. He was a good player, but not a great one, and it seemed the retirement of his number came on a quick decision made just after his death.

The list of players—and others, including retired MLB commissioner Bud Selig and the late California Angels owner Gene Autry — whose numbers have been retired by big league clubs contains more than 150 names and keeps growing. The Milwaukee Brewers retired No. 1 for Selig, a former owner of the team, and the Angels retired No. 26 in honor of Autry.

In Japan too, several teams have retired the uniform numbers of star players, of course. The Yomiuri Giants have six eikyu ketsuban, as the retired numbers are known in Japanese, including those of legendary former stars Sadaharu Oh (1), Shigeo Nagashima (3), Tetsuharu Kawakami (16), Masaichi Kaneda (34), Eiji Sawamura (14) and Toshio Kurosawa (4).

On the Hiroshima Carp, no one wears uniform numbers 3 and 8, set aside to remember ironman Sachio Kinugasa and “Mr. Carp” Koji Yamamoto, respectively. No player on the Hanshin Tigers can don No. 11, which was worn by former great pitcher Minoru Murayama, or the No. 23 of Yoshio Yoshida, one-time star shortstop and manager of the 1985 Japan Series champion Hanshin team.

In Japanese baseball, a team may have as many as 90 players, coaches and managers in uniform because the first- and second-team rosters are the same. If a club retired 20 numbers as the Yankees have done, it would run out of single- and double-digit numerals, even using zero and double zero.

Uniform numbers have always been a big deal in Japanese baseball circles. Ex-Yomiuri Giants great Nagashima, saw his No. 3 shelved when he ended his active career in 1974. He became the Kyojin manager the following season and wore No. 90 until he stepped down in 1980.

When he returned for a second stint as Yomiuri skipper in 1993, he took the No. 33 and wore that through 1999. In 2000, it was decided he would be reunited with his No. 3 jersey, and you would have thought it was the most important thing that ever happened in Japanese baseball.

As the team began spring training in Miyazaki on Feb. 1 of that year, Nagashima appeared on the field at all times wearing his jacket, but everyone knew what was under it. Photographers kept their cameras at the ready to record the dramatic moment when it became warm enough for “Mr. Giants” to remove the jacket and reveal the number he wore as a great player more than 25 years before.

Within a few hours, newspaper extras were being handed out all over the country with what became an iconic picture.

It is also well known 18 is the “ace number” in Japan, and a pitcher given that uniform is expected to be the best on his team. What happens when a great No. 18 hurler ends a brilliant career? Will that club then retire the number and go on without an ace?

What I am saying here is perhaps the practice of retiring the numbers of superstar — and sometimes just star — players may be getting out of hand. Are there not too many? Is there not another way to honor past heroes than to take their numbers out of circulation and post them on the stadium facades?

Jackie Robinson’s uniform number is the only one retired by all 30 Major League Baseball clubs, and the ultimate show of respect and recognition for me is the annual tradition observed by MLB on April 15, whereby every player, coach and manager on all the American and National League teams wears that No. 42 in honor of Robinson’s 1947 debut and career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

At least for a day, the number gets “un-retired,” and it is out there for all to see.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com