Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Uniform Success

There is a great price to pay for the continued success of the Yankees. They are running out of uniform numbers.

The Yankees may soon begin counting at 11.

With everything from 1 to 10 already removed from consideration except for 2 and 6, the numerical shortage is alarming. As #2 begins his final year in pinstripes, so too will his number retire to the pantheon of heroes at season's end.

That will leave only a single digit in the single digits. Lonely #6, but when was the last time we heard from it? Joe Torre left the Yankees under somewhat acrimonious circumstances after the 2007 season. Yet, he was, and by all accounts will be, the last to put on the uniform number resting between DiMaggio and Mantle.

As Torre heads to the Hall of Fame this summer, Brian Cashman may deem it the most appropriate time to do what he has said he would. And if he carries through. then by next season, like the 10 little Indians, the Yankee single digit uniforms will officially be none.

By way of further quirk, when this happens, 1 through 9 will have been removed 10 times, as two catchers, Berra and Dickey, share the honor of having the same number retired by the team. It is a bit ironic that the person with whom Berra shared time behind the plate for several seasons, Elston Howard, also has his #32 enshrined by the team.

Phil Rizzuto protects double digits from beginning at the beginning and thus the next prized prospect, with endless possibilities, can only hope that he is given the number 11 to wear proudly.

The 1929 Yankees were the first team to permanently assign numbers to their players. It is reported that the batting order served as predicate for the uniform number given to each player in the opening day lineup. Thus Ruth wore #3 and Gehrig, the cleanup hitter was #4. 

I know we are in the era of specialization and there are designated hitters in the American league, but what position does #11 play?

The most famous of all ceremonies removing a number from statistical contemplation was the first. On July 4, 1939, in his incomparable farewell speech, Lou Gehrig, reviewing his life and facing somewhat imminent death said that he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Both the speeches and the significance of retiring a number have diminished since then. But it still carries the specter of sustained greatness with it. 

Over the years, this tradition has spread throughout Major League baseball. There are now more than 150 players and managers whose numbers have been retired. Casey Stengel is the only one whose number has been retired by the Yankees and another franchise (yes, those Mets).  Hank Aaron, Rod Carew and Rollie Fingers have also had more than one organization remove their number from any possible future diminution.

But Nolan Ryan, and his three different retirement dinners holds the record for most gold watches handed out to a single performer. Unless of course, one considers Jackie Robinson, whose #42 had its last glorious moment in the summer sun on any major league baseball diamond when the incomparable Mariano left the stage.

Possibly the next important question for the Yankees is whether there should be a determination if any of those who have worn double one are worthy recipients, posthumous or not, of a place of permanent glory at the Stadium.

Herb Pennock, Lefty Grove, Waite Hoyt, Joe Page, Johnny Sain are but some of the old timers who wore #11 with distinction. And while there was certainly a fallow period, as names like Bernie Allen, Billy Sample and a host of other pretenders struggled to reach elevated heights, in recent years Dwight Gooden, Chuck Knoblaugh and Gary Sheffield have worn this number with success.  The jury is out on the current holder, Brett Gardner, yet he seems, for the moment, to be among the lesser #11 lights.

But I ask whether, among that group, is there not sufficient cause to bring number 12 to the forefront? And if that were to occur, I have no doubt that among its wearers is one worthy of coronation.

As we begin the end of the Derek Jeter era, and the demise of the one digit uniform on the most storied franchise in baseball history, there are weighty matters for contemplation. For example, when in the inevitable march of time will we watch the first triple digit uniform roam center field for the Bombers?


Anonymous said...

What a great letter! Too bad my Mets don't have the same problem


El Ganso said...

I often wonder how some of these topics enter your mind!
Love this column as the season is just about to start and Spring has sprung!!