The Retired Number Index

When the Twins announced last week that Bert Blyleven’s #28 would be retired it came as no surprise.  Generally speaking getting one’s number retired is a lesser feat than getting elected to the Hall of Fame, yet it would be an oversimplification to imagine the two honors as merely points along a sliding scale of greatness—there are a number of players enshrined in the Hall of Fame who never had their number retired.

The easiest way to be enshrined but not have your number retired, of course, is to not have a number. It turns out that even this is no iron clad guarantee, as six players from the days before uniform numbers still managed. Still, unless you are Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby your team is not likely to jump through the necessary semantic hoops, and accordingly the overwhelming majority of numberless players never had the honor of having their numbers retired. Of players who played their entire careers after 1932 (when uniform numbers were universally adopted) only eight made it to the Hall of Fame without a retired number.* Looking at these eight players six factors stand out:

1.     Number of Teams: One thing sure to hurt a player’s chances is moving around a lot. Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage probably made the list due to their extensive travels, both playing on nine different teams over their long careers.

2.    Maximum Tenure: Playing on several teams is not as big an issue if you manage a long tenure on at least one team. Time Raines played on four teams but his thirteen years with the Expos assured a retired number.

3.    Settling on a Number: It’s tough to get your number retired if no one can remember what number you wore. That may have been a problem for Joe Medwick, who wore ten different numbers over his career.

4.    The Era: Obviously, the bar has been lowered a lot since the Yankees first retired Lou Gehrig’s #4 in 1939. Five of the eight players on the list started their careers in the 1930’s.

5.    Room on the Wall: It’s easier to get your number retired if you are playing on an expansion team than if you are on a team with a long history like the Yankees.

6.    Perceived Talent: Notably four of the eight players in the Hall of Fame without retired numbers were elected by the Veterans Committee, and several of them had a shockingly low level of support from the writers.

There’s no simple formula for determining whether or not a player will have his number retired, except for possibly my Retired Number Index™, which weights the six factors listed above. In addition to the eight Hall of Famers whose numbers were not retired (in red), I have included five arbitrarily chosen players whose numbers were retired even though they are not in the Hall (green), and five other players up for election in the next few years. For the five recent players I attempted to choose players who are likely to get some Hall of Fame support but are not locks.


  Retired Number Index First Year Number Of Teams Max Tenure Number of Numbers
Joe Medwick 47.1 32 4 9 10
George Kell 50.2 43 5 7 6
Johnny Mize 55.9 36 3 6 4
Joe Gordon 59.0 38 2 7 2
Arky Vaughn 69.5 32 2 10 4
Hoyt Wilhelm 74.4 52 9 6 8
Jim Edmonds 74.6 93 6 8 2
Early Wynn 82.0 39 3 9 7
Kenny Lofton 82.2 91 11 10 5
Goose Gossage 86.4 72 9 7 1
Tim Raines 92.7 79 4 13 4
Kenny Rogers 93.7 89 6 12 3
Mike Mussina 103.5 91 2 10 2
Ron Santo 106.1 60 2 14 2
Don Mattingly 106.5 82 1 14 2
Dale Murphy 118.4 76 3 15 1
Steve Garvey 125.6 69 2 14 1
Bernie Williams 138.7 91 1 16 1


Even assuming I selected all the important contributing factors, the quantifying and weighting, needless to say, makes the whole thing rather unscientific. Still, it completely separated the Hall of Famers without retired numbers from the non-Hall of Famers with retired numbers, and I’d take my chances with the five predictions. Bernie Williams’ high score suggests that maybe I should have weighted the team penalty a bit more—if he had played for the Marlins I think he would already have his number on the wall but it’s a bit more crowded at Yankee Stadium—but I’ll stand by my prediction that he goes up along with Mussina and Rogers, while Edmonds and Lofton don’t make the cut.

* 2011 inductee Roberto Alomar might technically be the ninth, though Toronto’s “Level of Excellence” is more or less the equivalent honor for the Blue Jays, they just aren’t keen on wasting good numbers.   

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