One of sports’ great traditions is honoring iconic athletes by retiring their jersey numbers. Boston has already stated they will do this for David Ortiz next year; going forward, no other member of the Red Sox will be able to wear his #34.
This custom used to be reserved for the best-of-the-best who were all-time greats both in their sport and for their team. NBA fans immediately associate a Bulls #23 jersey with Michael Jordan. Similarly, anyone who was watching football in the 1980s knows Jerry Rice wore #80 for the San Francisco 49ers.
Baseball, of course, has had many deserving players over the years, including Babe Ruth (#3, New York Yankees), Ted Williams (#9, Boston Red Sox) and Willie Mays (#24, San Francisco Giants).
But in recent years, MLB franchises have retired numbers for, well, no one is really sure why. The bar was lowered for players who won championships. It was lowered even further for anyone who had once been great – on another team. As a result, some athletes have been immortalized with teams they barely played for, while others were celebrated for good, but not great, careers.
A few of the names below are actually in the Hall of Fame. Several of them won MVPs or Cy Young Awards. But all of them had their numbers unnecessarily retired by at least one franchise.
15 Carlton Fisk, Chicago White Sox
Carlton Fisk was a deserving first ballot Hall of Famer. But despite playing in Chicago for 13 seasons, most of his impressive resume was constructed while he was a member of the Boston Red Sox. In Boston, Fisk won the American League Rookie of the Year, had a 126 OPS+ over 11 years and took home his only career Gold Glove. Also, if you were alive in the 70’s or have seen Good Will Hunting, you’re aware of his famous walk-off home run that tied the 1978 World Series at three games apiece. The Red Sox retired Fisk’s number, but so did Chicago, which was a questionable decision at best. He averaged a respectable, but unspectacular, 2.2 WAR per season in the Windy City and finished among the top 10 in MVP voting just once during his tenure with the team. In Fisk’s lone playoff appearance for the White Sox, he was just 3-17 (.176) with no homers, runs or RBI. Small sample, sure, but it doesn’t help to justify Chicago’s choice to retire his number.
14 Steve Garvey, San Diego Padres
Similar to Fisk (#15 above), Steve Garvey accumulated some great stats during his career. He was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 14 seasons, earning an NL MVP, appearing in eight straight All-Star Games and winning a World Series. But after leaving as a free agent, Garvey only played in San Diego for five years and posted an OPS+ of 100 – the definition of average – while with the Padres. The highlight of his time in S.D. occurred when he earned the ’84 NLCS MVP and his team reached the World Series, but his stats that year were very pedestrian: he had just eight home runs and a 91 OPS+. In 605 regular season games with the Padres, Garvey only posted 1.3 WAR, but apparently that’s good enough for immortality in some cities.
13 Frank White, Kansas City Royals
The Kansas City Royals were one of baseball’s best teams from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s. And one of the constants on their roster was second baseman, Frank White. A five-time All-Star, White was a strong defensive player; he won eight Gold Gloves and had 21.4 defensive WAR during his 18-year career. But he was just a .255 hitter with a relatively poor OPS+ of 85. White is one of just two players, along with Hall of Fame third baseman, George Brett, to have had his jersey number retired by Kansas City. However, there are several Royals who were perhaps more deserving of the honor, including a few of his teammates from the 1985 championship team. Specifically, the American League Cy Young winner from that season, Bret Saberhagen (20-6, league-leading 2.89 FIP in ’85), Mark Gubicza and speedster, Willie Wilson all had more career WAR with KC than White’s total of 34.7.
12 Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox
Paul Konerko hit a big grand slam in the 2005 World Series that helped the White Sox end an 88-year title drought. And he certainly hit a lot of home runs (432) for Chicago during his 16 seasons there. However, Konerko was a horrible defender (-18.6 defensive WAR with the Sox) and overall, his 27.6 career WAR is tied with several players, including Garry Templeton, Dave Henderson and Mike Napoli for 590th all-time. Though the team probably felt like retiring his number would be an appropriate way to celebrate the accomplishments of the ’05 team, it certainly doesn’t sound as meaningful when Napoli is a comp in terms of production. Konerko was a very good offensive player in an era with a lot of very good offensive players; he made five All-Star Game appearances with Chicago, but was the backup to a different player each time.
11 Willie Horton, Detroit Tigers
Willie Horton was a big reason the Tigers won the World Series in 1968. Though he was just fourth on the team among position players in WAR with 5.4, he led Detroit in home runs (36) and OPS+ (165). And during the Fall Classic that year, Horton hit .304 with a homer and three RBI in seven games. The rest of his career with the Tigers was solid, but not nearly as strong: a .798 OPS with yearly averages of 16 homers, 43 runs and 57 RBI. Meanwhile, teammate Norm Cash also played 15 years for Detroit, but had over 100 more home runs, 300 more runs, 200 more RBI and twice as many WAR (51.7 to 25.9). But while Horton’s #23 is no longer available to players in The Motor City, Cash’s number has not been retired.
10 Harold Baines, Chicago White Sox
In 14 years with the White Sox, Baines hit .288 with 221 home runs and a 118 OPS+. He never hit 20 homers, never scored 90 runs and only received even a single MVP vote four times. Statistically, Baines was a poor defensive player (so much so, that he became a full-time designated hitter when he was just 28 years old) and only had three hits in 20 at-bats (.150 batting average) during two postseason series with the team. Making Chicago’s decision to retire his number even more curious - he was still active as a Texas Ranger when it happened. He had been traded earlier in the 1989 season for a package of players that included Sammy Sosa. After the ceremony, Baines would go on to play 12 more seasons, including two more stints with the Sox.
9 Rod Carew, California Angels
Rod Carew played 19 MLB seasons and made the All-Star team in 18 of them. With Minnesota, he won the Rookie of the Year, an MVP and six batting titles. In 1977, Carew led the American League in hits (239), runs (128), triples (16), batting average (.388) and OPS+ (178). By the time he was traded to the Angels, he was well on his way to being a sure-fire Hall of Famer; retiring his number was an absolute no-brainer for the Twins. But Carew’s numbers with California, while still solid, were significantly worse than they had been when he played for Minnesota. During his seven years with the Angels, he averaged 138 hits, 68 runs, 40 RBI, 12 stolen bases and a 119 OPS+. If you remove the name from the back of Carew’s jersey, those stats were not exactly retired-number material.
8 Rusty Staub, Montreal Expos
Rusty Staub was by far the best player on the Montreal Expos during their inaugural season in the majors. In 1969, he led the 52-110 club with 29 home runs, 89 runs, 110 walks, and a .302 batting average. Staub’s 166 OPS+ that year was fourth in the National League behind three guys named Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. His 6.9 offensive WAR in ’69 was a single-season franchise record until just last year, when Bryce Harper (of the Washington Nationals) won the NL MVP. Though Staub only played three seasons in Montreal before getting traded to the Mets, he made the All-Star Game each year and was a fan favorite. But while a player’s popularity is always a consideration when determining if his number should be retired, it’s hard to justify doing so for someone who played just 518 games for a franchise.
7 Nolan Ryan, Texas Rangers
Nolan Ryan joined the Texas Rangers when he was 42 years old. Though he had several huge moments while he was with the team – two no-hitters, 300th career win and 5,000th career strikeout (not to mention six or seven punches to Robin Ventura’s head) – the bottom line is that Ryan only won 51 games for Texas over five seasons. And during that time, the team failed to reach the postseason. But he was an MLB icon; his seven no-nos and 5,714 Ks are both tops in the record books. The question is: How small does a legend’s impact have to be for a team to pass on retiring his number? As we shall see later in this list, there is apparently no such thing as too small an impact.
6 Mike Scott, Houston Astros
In 1986, the Houston Astros fell two games short of making the World Series. Their ace that season was Cy Young winner, Mike Scott, who was 18-10 and led the National League in ERA+ (161), FIP (2.16), WHIP (0.923), strikeouts (306) and shutouts (5, including a no-hitter). He also made his first All-Star team and even won the NLCS Most Valuable Player (2-0, 0.50 ERA), despite pitching for the losing side. It was a dominant season, to be sure. But in nine years with the ‘Stros, Scott compiled just 110 wins, 1,318 Ks and a slightly-above-average ERA+ of 107. The year after he quit baseball, Houston retired his #33, which, when you consider the team never even reached the Fall Classic while he was there, seems like a rather large stretch for someone with his numbers.
5 Bruce Sutter, St. Louis Cardinals
Bruce Sutter spent four years in St. Louis – and one of those was shortened by a strike. His numbers were much better when he pitched for the Cubs previously (171 ERA+ in Chicago, compared to 132 as a Cardinal) and he even won a Cy Young Award in the Windy City. While with St. Louis, Sutter led the National League in saves three times and won the 1982 World Series. Eventually, he even made his way into Cooperstown somehow, despite having the 27th-most WAR among relief pitchers (right between Bob Stanley and Kelvim Escobar) in baseball history. Specifically, on the ’82 squad, Sutter was 16th on his own team in WAR (he wasn’t even the most valuable Cardinals reliever that year) and had a 4.70 ERA during the World Series. Even if you dismiss those numbers, four seasons and one ring is a very low threshold to have for retiring a player’s number, particularly for a closer.
4 Randy Jones, San Diego Padres
For two seasons, Randy Jones was one of the best pitchers in the National League. In 1975, he won the ERA title (2.24). The following year, while pitching for a sub-.500 team, he led the league with 22 wins en route to the NL Cy Young Award. But as a whole, his career as a Padre was rather unremarkable. Including his two standout seasons, Jones was just 92-105 with a 104 ERA+ in eight seasons with San Diego. And he never pitched in the postseason. Granted, the Padres don’t exactly have a long list of quality hurlers; Eric Show is the franchise leader with 100 wins. But if every player who enjoyed a couple of great years had been honored by his respective team, the sport would have run out of double-digit jersey numbers long ago.
3 Rollie Fingers, Milwaukee Brewers
The case for Rollie Fingers having his number retired by the Milwaukee Brewers is similar to that of the Cardinals doing the same for Bruce Sutter (#5 above). Fingers made a name for himself while pitching for the Oakland A’s several years prior to joining Milwaukee. He was the closer on an A’s team that won three straight titles and he had six saves with a 1.35 ERA during those Fall Classics. In 1974, Fingers even won the World Series MVP with a win and a pair of saves in a five-game defeat of the Dodgers. But he only spent four years in Milwaukee. Though he pitched well there (he took home both the 1981 AL MVP and Cy Young awards), his legacy was built in Oakland, where his number was also (justifiably) retired.
2 Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Third baseman, Wade Boggs, provided the Devil Rays with two historic moments during his time with the team. Despite hitting relatively few home runs as a big leaguer (he reached double-digit HRs only twice in 18 MLB seasons), he slugged the first round-tripper in franchise history and also collected his 3,000th career hit (also a homer) while with the team. But Boggs also played in just 213 games for Tampa Bay and his OPS+ as a Ray was an unimpressive 94. During his previous 16 seasons with the Red Sox and Yankees, he had collected 2,800 hits, a Rookie of the Year award, 12 straight All-Star Game appearances and a World Series title. Boston should have been the only team to retire Boggs’s number; Tampa did it as a desperate move to simply have a baseball legend forever associated with the franchise.
1 Henry Aaron, Milwaukee Brewers
When Henry “Hank” Aaron retired from baseball, he was the all-time leader in both home runs (755) and RBI (2,297). But the vast majority of his stats were accumulated over 21 seasons with the Braves’ organization. At the age of 41, Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and finished his career there. He played just 222 games with the Brewers and hit only 22 home runs for them (2.9% of his 755 career total). A .310 hitter during his time with the Braves, Aaron posted a .232 batting average with 0.4 WAR over his final two years. If there were a top 10 list of MLB legendary hitters, Aaron’s name would certainly be on it - but not because of anything he did with the Brewers.