High and Tight: Our Rock & Roll Baseball Experts Talk Retired Numbers - Rolling Stone
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High and Tight: Our Rock & Roll Baseball Experts Talk Retired Numbers

Joe Pernice, Ben Gibbard, Scott McCaughey and other rocker fanatics sound off on our national pastime

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Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees follows through on a swing.

Rogers Photo Archive/Getty Images

Okay, baseball fans, here’s a trivia question for ya: What do George Selkirk, Bud Metheny, Roy Weatherly, Eddie Bockman, Allie Clark, Frank Colman and Cliff Mapes all have in common? Answer: They all wore #3 for the Yankees … after Babe Ruth wore it.

Hard to imagine, right? The tradition-minded Yankees, actually letting a bunch of scrubs wear the number of their most legendary player? Even Selkirk, who enjoyed several impressive seasons with the Yanks in the 1930s, would be unworthy of sharing the Bambino’s number. But Bud “I hit .247 during WWII” Metheny?!?

What you may not know is that the now-common practice of retiring uniform numbers didn’t even exist in 1935, the year Ruth hung up his spikes. The very first number to be retired by a major league baseball team was that of Ruth’s one-time teammate, Lou Gehrig, whose #4 was effectively withdrawn from future Yankee usage during “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, the same day that the gravely ill Iron Horse made his celebrated “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech. The Yankees wouldn’t retire Ruth’s number until nearly nine years later, shortly before his death from cancer at the age of 53.

Retired uniform numbers remained a rare occurrence up until the 1970s. Other than Gehrig and Ruth, only 15 players and managers had their uniform numbers retired by their teams from 1939 through 1969 – including Reds pitcher Willard Hershberger, whose #5 was temporarily retired after Hershberger committed suicide in 1940. (It would later be worn by, and re-retired for, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.) In contrast, 31 uni numbers were de-activated by major league franchises in the 1970s alone; since then, another 123 have been put out of commission, including 12 over the past two years. 

Earlier this month, John Smoltz became the ninth player or manager to have his number retired by the Braves, and the Braves will also probably retire those of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in the near future. Even so, that still wouldn’t put ’em ahead of the Yankees, who currently lead the bigs in number retirings with 16, or the Cardinals, who now have an even dozen, thanks to the recent retirement of former manager Tony LaRussa’s number.

As of this writing, Jackie Robinson’s #42 is the only number that has been retired for all 30 major league teams; it was de-activated by the decree of Bud Selig and Major League Baseball in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier. (Players who were already wearing the number at the time were allowed to keep it; if the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera returns next year, he’ll be the only active player still wearing it.) But there are also some factions who believe that Roberto Clemente’s number #21 should receive similar treatment, in honor of the considerable ground he broke for Latino ballplayers, or that Babe Ruth — baseball’s first superstar — should have his #3 similarly retired in honor of his overall importance to the game. On the other hand, there are also some folks out there who feel that this whole thing has gotten a little silly; the Astros, for instance, have already retired nine of their numbers.

So this week, we asked our esteemed panel of rock & roll seamheads: Do you think the whole “retired number” thing is overdone, or does it remain an important baseball tradition? What former player or manager’s number would you like to see retired? And is there any other player’s number that should be retired throughout baseball, a la Jackie Robinson’s #42?

Name: Steve Earle
Position: Vocals, Guitar

 It’s an important baseball tradition that’s gotten a little out of hand. We’re in danger of running out of single- and double-digit numbers. Then what? Everbody knows that the next retired Yankees number’s going to be the #2 jersey of Derek Jeter. Retiring Jackie Robinson’s number was one of baseball’s finest moments. Jackie Robinson led the game and his people into a new era. I can’t imagine anyone in the sport doing anything anywhere near courageous enough to put them in the same class.

Name: Steve Wynn
Band: The Baseball Project
Position: Vocals, Guitar

Wow, the Astros have nine retired numbers? Really? That’s a little hard to believe. Hey, as a Yankee fan, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll eventually have any numbers left to give to current day players, not that any of their retired numbers have come cheaply. Maybe players should just have bar codes on the backs of their uniforms so you can scan them while watching the game, and have them come to life in a hologram form in your living room between innings for in-game analysis. But I might be getting ahead of myself here. But as far as a uniformly-retired uniform number? That should start and end with #42, though Mariano Rivera just might keep wearing that one for a few more years.

Dale Earnhardt jr jr

 Name: Daniel Zott
Band: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Position: Vocals, Guitar

Think about the year 3000! There won’t be any numbers left. It’s like Y2K all over again. They’ll have to do a reset of all the numbers, which would totally defeat the purpose. 

alice cooper

 Name: Alice Cooper
Position: Vocals

I think that it’s tradition.  If someone dedicated their whole life to a team, and became world famous for what they did, their number should be retired. I think my number should be retired. I’m 18!

Name: Pete Yorn
Position: Vocals, Guitar

I believe in the retired jersey number. It’s so special and it gives the player a place in baseball history. They are so identified with their number, it’s an attachment for life. No other team will catch the Yankees on the all time list, but #14 should be officially retired by the Reds. Charlie Hustle deserves that. Pete made mistakes. However, he was the greatest. I know no other Red will ever dare wear #14, but MLB should let the Reds make it official.

joe pernice

Name: Joe Pernice
Band: Pernice Brothers
Position: Vocals, Guitar

I think it’s a part of the baseball tradition that should remain. I would like to see the Red Sox retire Tim Wakefield’s number. Seems to me you have to look at the player and the man when considering retiring his digits. Wake had a great career in Boston, and to the best of my knowledge he was the consummate generous gentleman off the field. Sox brass might have to do some digging to unearth a player possessing such qualities. With regards to who should have his number retired league-wide: not Manny.

vinnie paul

Name: Vinnie Paul
Band: Hellyeah, Pantera
Position: Drums 

A retired number shows respect and admiration for what that player accomplished, and ensures he will never be forgotten, so it is very important to baseball. I would like to see Jim Sundberg’s #10 retired by the Rangers. I don’t believe any other player’s number should be retired league-wide other than Jackie Robinson’s, because of his significance to major league baseball!

Name: Ben Gibbard
Band: Death Cab for Cutie
Position: Vocals, Guitar

I have no issues with teams retiring the numbers of their best players or managers. I’ve often said that MLB’s move to retire #42 across the board was one of the more creative and moving tributes in sports. That being said, it is the kind of tribute you can really only do once. Let’s keep it at just Jackie’s number, please.

Name: Tom Morello
Band: The Nightwatchman, Street Sweeper Social Club, Rage Against the Machine
Position: Guitar, Vocals

I like keeping Jackie Robinson’s #42 as the only number that is retired throughout all of baseball, as a testament to his unique importance in making the game a more humane and equal one. The player whose number I think should be retired would be Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s, both for his incredible rookie season in 1976, and his timeless antics that are sorely missed in today’s hyper-conservative league. 

george thorogood

Name: George Thorogood 
Band: George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Position: Vocals, Guitar

I often think they should retire Ruth’s #3 for what he did for baseball. If I was in the big leagues I would be embarrassed to wear #3, but proud to wear #42.

Name: Scott Ian
Band: Anthrax
Position: Guitar

I think it is an important tradition. So much of my love for baseball is based in the lore and traditions of the sport. So many of the old traditions seem to go by the wayside as baseball becomes more and more corporate, so I think it’s important to keep whatever they can sacred. 
And yes, I’d like to see certain numbers retired for all time for all teams. Jackie Robinson’s #42 is a great start.

Name: Ken Casey
Band: Dropkick Murphys
Position: Bass guitar, Vocals

I think Oil Can Boyd’s number should be retired across the league. That guy is priceless!

Name: Handsome Dick Manitoba
Band: Manitoba
Position: Vocals

I LOVE retired numbers. The Yankees are the leading team, with 16 retired numbers in over a hundred years of baseball. Too much? NO! Maybe there’s too many people in the baseball Hall of Fame — but as far as retired numbers go, what should you do when greatness is part of your DNA, as it is in the NY Yankees story? You HAVE to retire #2, #42, and so on. Could you imagine someone in pinstripes wearing #2 in five years? HELL NO! I would like to see the Yankees retire Horace Clark’s #20 (which he wore WAYYYY before POSADA). Why? The Yankees came in 10th and last  place out of 10 teams in 1965. Retiring Horace’s number would be a REMINDER, like some other still-standing historical reminders, never to allow your team to be the worst again. Never forget! As for retiring a number across the majors, YES: #2 for Derek Jeter. His numbers, his consistency, his class, his attitude, the WAY he plays the game, should be THE dictionary definition on how to play baseball and conduct yourself as a player. 

Name: Scott McCaughey 
Band: The Baseball Project, the Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows
Position: Guitar, Vocals

I think they should go back to the days of no numbers and no names on jerseys. Let the fans be more vigilant, or more confused. Ty Cobb wore no number and yet was mercilessly heckled to the point of leaping into the stands and pummeling a particularly vocal, and almost completely handless, man. The handicapped, taunting fan needed no name or number to pick Cobb out from the other anonymously-uniformed Tigers. Having no number also made it easier for Cobb to avoid capture by authorities when warrants were taken out against him. A lack of digits might also encourage players to adopt more singular looks in order to be more recognizable. Jon Rauch’s and Ryan Roberts neck tattoos certainly make their numbers superfluous. How much cooler would it be if Jose Bautista had a total Rumpelstiltskin beard instead of the rather boring #19? Yeah, retire ALL the numbers!

Dan Epsteins book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s, is now available in paperback.


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