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August 24, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Yesterday, the Yankees retired Ron Guidry's #49, making it the 16th number to have been retired by the Yankees.

On one hand, I can see the merit in Guidry having his number retired. He was not a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher, but he was a great pitcher for a couple of seasons, and a good one for a decade, and played his entire career with the Yankees. On merit alone, compared to others who have had their numbers retired, including Yankees, he is absolutely worthy.

The problem I have with retiring Guidry's number has nothing to do with Guidry at all, but those who have gone before him. Like the Hall of Fame, players of questionable merit have had their numbers retired, and unless a team is willing to insult the player and many fans by unretiring their number, there's nothing you can do about it. And because you've retired the numbers of undeserving players, you have to retire the numbers of most of the players who are clearly more deserving of the honor. #2, #6 and #51 are are likely to be retired by the Yankees in the future, and that's probably not even all of them.

I've never been a "small Hall of Fame" person, but I do think that teams should be a little less enthusiastic in retiring numbers. There's the practical reason, that eventually you'll run out of numbers, but there's also the dilution of the honor. Some argue that having your number retired is a lesser honor than induction into the Hall of Fame, but I think it should be a greater one. Think about it, when you're inducted into the Hall, it's a way of saying, "this is one of the great players of all time, a player that you should remember." But when you retire a player's number, you're saying, "This player was so great, that no player can ever be good enough to wear the same number as him." I think that's a step up, not down.

The first player to have his number retired was, of course, Lou Gehrig. After all these years, it's amazing that Lou Gehrig is still underrated. He was overshadowed by the Babe in his playing days, and has since been overshadowed by ALS and The Streak. We all know he was a great, great ballplayer, but we often forget how great he was. He was one of the top five hitters of all time, perhaps only surpassed by Ruth, Williams, and Barry. The 1927 Yankees had a pair of players hitting 3 and 4 that has not only never been matched, but which it is probably impossible to match. Take Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols this year and put them on the same team--they're still not as good as Ruth/Gehrig. Lou was that good, and if there was ever a player whose number deserved to be retired, especially considering the character of the man, it was Lou.

Babe's turn came in 1948, and there can be no argument about Ruth, either. One can even argue that, considering the greatness of the player and his impact on the sport to this day, that Major League Baseball should retire #3 for all teams, as they did for Jackie Robinson (and rightfully so). Babe Ruth was probably the greatest player that ever lived.

Next was DiMaggio, who is probably the most overrated player in Yankees History (that oughta get some email!). But Joe DiMaggio was also a truly great player who personified everything the Yankees organization wants to represent. Ruth and Gehrig were the giants who pummelled your brains out, but DiMaggio was a great player who quietly went about the business of winning, did it consistently, and didn't rub your face in it. He was great, and he was classy--at least for the public. And he deserved to have his number retired.

Mickey Mantle followed DiMaggio in center field, and followed him into immortality when #7 was retired in 1969. Like Gehrig, Mantle was overshadowed by DiMaggio's legend, but unlike Gehrig, he was actually greater than the player he was unfairly compared unfavorably to. DiMaggio had a 155 *OPS+, Mantle's was 172. Retiring #7 was a no-brainer.

Next year was Casey Stengel, who had led the Yankees to ten pennants and 7 titles. If the Yankees didn't retire his number, than no manager should ever have his number retired.

In 1972, the Yankees retired #8 for Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, and considering that they were two of the greatest catchers that ever lived, it's hard to argue with that decision.

Whitey Ford in 1974 is where the line between legendary and great begins to blur. Ford was the greatest pitcher in Yankees' history, and one of the greatest of all time...but was he so great that no player should ever wear his number again? In my opinion, unlike the Hall of Fame, the big four are the standard, and to have your number retired, your place in Yankees history should be comparable.

The next number, of course, was Thurman. Thurman is the exception, a player wholly undeserving of the Hall of Fame, but wholly deserving of having his number retired, because of how beloved he was, and how we lost him.

After that it got a little ridiculous, as the Yankees started retiring the numbers of players who couldn't hold a candle to Gehrig, Ruth, Joe D. and the Mick. Ellie Howard was the first black Yankees, Roger Maris had a couple of really great years. Phil Rizzuto is a really great guy and was a good SS and a borderline HoF candidate before they finally put him in. Billy Martin was a pretty good manager. Reggie Jackson was Mr. October, but was only here for five years, and put up only one truly great season, the rest were merely very good (except '81). Don Mattingly was a fan favorite who was great for a couple of years, and Ron Guidry had, perhaps, the single greatest season as a pitcher since the mound was lowered.

The Yankees are retiring numbers like this because it sells tickets, and brings people to the park earlier (selling more concessions). It's a money-maker, adn until it becomes passe (if it ever does), teams are going to keep doing it as long as they have players who they can justify honoring. If you want to push it with the Yankees, assuming that they continue with precedence, you could ultimately retire #21, #22, #36, #42 and #46 along with #2, #6 and #51.

Of course the team with the greatest history should have the most retired numbers, it's likely that they'd have the most great players But they should leave some numbers for the players yet to come, otherwise, when I'm an old man, the numbers the Yankees starting lineup wears will remind one of an early spring-training game.

But, congratualations, Ron. I don't want to take anything away from you (I know you're an avid reader!). You were a great player, and although I don't agree with how things are, you are fully deserving of this honor in view of the precendent set before you.

* * *

My condolences go out to the family of Bobby Bonds, who passed away yesterday of cancer. Bobby was a very good player who will, unfortunately, probably be remembered more for his son than anything he did on the field.

I lost my grandmother to cancer when I was a toddler, I have a young cousin who is battling it now, and I lost a dear friend, Sue Rogers, a couple of years ago. Baseball Prospectus put up this link for readers to make a donation to the American Cancer Society, and I will do the same. If you can spare the money, I ask you to give a little in memory of Bobby and the other millions of people who have been stolen from us.