Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 24, 2015

Honoring The Past As The Present Slips Away

The New York Yankees didn’t originate the concept of retiring a player’s number. Pride of place goes to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, who retired winger Ace Bailey’s number 6, in 1934. But since seventy-six summers ago, when the Yankees first retired a number as a tribute to an athlete dying young, they have raised the practice to an art form. On Independence Day 1939, nearly 62,000 crowded into the old Stadium to hear Lou Gehrig respond to his “bad break,” a diagnosis of the disease that would eventually carry his name, by declaring himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Babe Ruth’s number 3 was next, nine years later. Over the decades more than 150 players have had their numbers retired across the majors, but none more than by the Yankees. Left fielder Brett Gardner wears number 11 these days, and does so knowing that no Yankee will ever have a lower numeral on his back. Hall of Fame shortstop and long-time broadcaster Phil Rizzuto’s number 10 was retired in 1985, in a ceremony during which The Scooter was knocked down by a live cow wearing a halo (thus a “holy cow,” Rizzuto’s trademark phrase as a broadcaster); and all but one of the single digit numbers have also been removed from circulation. The lone holdout is number 2, and one can safely assume both that no Yankee will ever again wear that jersey and that tickets for the game at which Derek Jeter’s number is officially retired will sell out in minutes.

The captain was on hand last weekend, in a rare public visit back to the new Stadium since his retirement. Short of setting up seats on the field 62,000 can’t fit into the place on the north side of 161st Street, but more than 46,000 fans joined Jeter on both Saturday and Sunday to honor Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte as 20 and 46 brought to an even twenty the total of numbers retired in the Bronx.

Cynics can laugh, and suggest that the Yankees’ penchant for retiring numbers makes for good marketing and is just a way to sell more tickets for a weekend summer series. They can joke about how rookies at Spring Training in Tampa will soon have to wear jerseys with three-digit numbers on the back. But the cynics don’t support teams with 27 titles, and a glance at the contributions made by those whose numbers now hang on the walls of Monument Park suggests that the team does not make the retirement decision lightly.

In addition to Gehrig, Ruth and Rizzuto, there are fellow Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Reggie Jackson; as well as the certain future Cooperstown honoree Mariano Rivera. There are three great managers, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin and Joe Torre; each of whom led multiple Yankee teams to championships. And there are players who made singular contributions to the team. Roger Maris, who broke Ruth’s single-season home run mark. Elston Howard, the first African-American to play for the Yankees and the first to win the MVP Award in the American League. Former captain and pitching coach Ron Guidry, whose 25-3 record in 1978 remains one of the finest pitching years in the modern era. Don Mattingly, another former captain who is the only Yankee with a retired number who never won a championship. For most Yankee fans the eternally popular Donnie Baseball remains the greatest Yankee never to have played in a World Series.

Now the team and its fans have turned their collective attention to the most recent Yankee dynasty. As the last player to wear number 42 after its retirement across all of baseball to honor Jackie Robinson, Rivera’s number found its place in Monument Park as soon as he threw his final cutter. The 51 of Bernie Williams, the slugging center fielder on four championship teams between 1996 and 2000, had conspicuously gone unissued since he last wore it in 2006. Earlier this year it became the eighteenth number retired by the team and Williams the nineteenth former Yankee to be so honored (like Dickey, Berra wore number 8 before it was retired to honor his predecessor behind the plate, so that number is retired twice).

There were no cynics to be found in the stands on either Saturday or Sunday as the ceremonies for Posada and Pettitte played out under bright sun and blue skies. A host of former teammates were on hand to join in the festivities. While the loudest cheers were of course reserved for the honorees, the roars for Rivera and Jeter, the other two members of the Core Four who together won five titles, were only a few decibels less. Long and loud too was the ovation for Hideki Matsui, hero of the 2009 World Series.

After the introductions and the unveiling of their numbers in Monument Park, after the bronze plaques that will hang on the walls out beyond center field were undraped, and after commemorative gifts were presented, both the slugging catcher and the left-handed starter with the best pickoff move in the Great Game were called to the microphone.

On Saturday Posada spoke of the passion with which he played the game. On Sunday Pettitte acknowledged that he was never a dominant pitcher, but one who had to grind out every win. Both spoke of how playing in New York had been the realization of a childhood dream. From a barrio of San Juan, from Baton Rouge in the great river’s delta, the former battery mates found a second home in the Bronx.

There, before adoring fans, Posada set the team record for doubles by a catcher, and finished behind only Berra for home runs at his position. One of those homers was the first in the new Stadium in 2009. For the first decade of the new century, Posada hit more home runs than any other major league catcher. In a difficult final season in 2011, he rose to the moment at the end, batting .429 in the ALDS while the rest of the Yankee offense slumbered.

There, before adoring fans, Pettitte set the record for postseason wins. He set the team record for strikeouts and combined with Rivera for 81 win-save combinations, more than any duo in the history of the Great Game. He won the final game at the old Stadium in 2008, the clinching game in all three playoff series in 2009, and threw a complete game victory in the final start of his career.

Last weekend Posada and Pettitte joined fellow Yankee legends with their numbers in the center of a pinstriped white circle in Monument Park. For fans of the Bombers it was all nearly perfect save for one thing. Even as Jorge and Andy were being honored, the current team was losing three out of four to the lowly nine from Cleveland. Having stood pat at the trade deadline with the oldest roster in the majors, the Yankees have seen injuries and the toll of the longest season sap their offense, even as the Toronto Blue Jays have surged thanks to their acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. As fans left the Stadium on Sunday the Yankees were in the process of leaving first place. Perhaps the results would have been better if Posada and Pettitte had suited up.


  1. Well, the Yanks certainly do have a flare for the dramatic. But they do have the titles to back it up (as you point out), so more power to them.
    Nice work, as always,

    • Thanks Bill, I always appreciate your support. Now about the Mets. Eight home runs? Eight? I realize they were playing the Phillies, so three or four might have been expected. But eight? I think that’s piling on!


      • Up until just about 3 or 4 weeks ago, hitting eight homers all week would have been worth noting. Eight in one day is just truly crazy. I like what I’m seeing. What do you think? Subway Series?

  2. Nice. As a kid, obviously, I was a big fan of Elston Howard, but I never knew that he was the first black player for the Yankees. Thanks.


    • Thanks Don. Unfortunately the Yankees were among the laggards when it came to integrating their roster. Howard’s rookie season was 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson’s. By that time only the Phillies, Tigers and of course the avowed racist Yawkey’s Red Sox were fielding all-white teams.

      Thanks again,


      Michael Cornelius


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