For professional sports teams, the decision on whether to retire a player’s number is a big deal.
When an organization retires a player’s number, that player becomes eternally linked with it, and it’s a signal to all that the player in question is a legend, a Mount Rushmore icon of sorts.
When you think of Mike Schmidt, you think of No. 20. When you think of Steve Carlton, you think of No. 32. When you think of Richie Ashburn, you think of No. 1.
Some teams retire a lot of numbers. The New York Yankees have retired 22 numbers of former players and managers, which is far more than most. Of course, the Yankees also have 27 World Series titles and have had more legends per capita come through that organization that virtually every other team combined.
The Phillies have been around since 1883, one of the oldest teams in baseball, but have retired only five numbers — Ashburn’s No. 1, Jim Bunning’s No. 14, Schmidt’s No. 20, Carlton’s No. 32 and Robin Roberts’ No. 36. Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 has been retired by every team in baseball.
Five Phils players in 136 years. That’s not a lot, but it also goes to show the reverence with which the Phillies believe retiring someone’s number should hold. And that’s understandable, as there is no greater honor a team can bestow on a player. In a recent piece in The Athletic by Matt Gelb, team officials reiterated that their policy has been that only players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame should be given the honor of having their number retired by the team.
“So,” [Larry] Shenk (the Phils’ longtime public relations and alumni director) said, “it was around the 1990s when we started getting some pressure from fans and family members and priests and doctors to retire No. 14 for Del Ennis. He was the greatest Philadelphia native ever to wear our uniform. And he was my hero as a kid growing up. But I didn’t think he was of the same ilk as Roberts and Ashburn. So we said, ‘You have to be a Hall of Famer to have your number retired.’”
This grew from what Shenk described as an “understanding” between himself and top executives Giles and David Montgomery.
“We didn’t sit down and hash anything out,” Shenk said. “We didn’t put anything in writing. We didn’t take any votes. We just said, ‘This is what it’s going to be.’”
So that’s how it was. Jim Bunning was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996 with a Phillies hat on his plaque. But his No. 14 — also Ennis’ number — wasn’t retired until 2001. Pete Rose, Jeff Stone, Rex Hudler and others had worn it after Bunning did.
In other words, the Phillies appear to have come up with this policy as a way of cushioning the news to the family of Del Ennis that they weren’t going to retire his number.
It’s time to reverse that policy for a number of reasons.
First, by mandating that a player has to be inducted into Cooperstown before their jersey is retired essentially outsources the decision to the Baseball Writers Association of America. Leaving it up to a flawed group of baseball writers, many of whom don’t even cover the game anymore, is bad policy.
Second, that policy could create some very uncomfortable scenarios.
Roy Halladay was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year and there have been rumblings that the team might retire his No. 34. After all, Bryce Harper switched his jersey number from 34 to No. 3 out of reverence to Halladay, and it seems clear no one is going to wear that uniform number for the Phillies anytime soon. Would it make sense to retire Halladay’s number, a pitcher who was great for two years but never even played in a World Series with the Phils, and not Utley/Howard/Rollins?
What if Cole Hamels, who is the best home-grown pitcher the team developed outside of Robin Roberts and was perhaps more responsible for their 2008 world championship than anyone from that core, has another couple seasons of effective pitching and is inducted to Cooperstown, while Utley and Rollins remain on the outside looking in? Would the Phillies retire Hamels’ number and not Rollins’ or Utley’s? Simply because Hamels had a couple extra years at the end of his career playing for other teams? And if they chose not to retire Hamels’ number because of that conflict, wouldn’t that be unfair to Hamels?
Third, as noted in Gelb’s piece, the numbers of certain players have essentially been “retired” already. The team has not issued Chase Utley’s No. 26, Jimmy Rollins’ No. 11 and Ryan Howard’s 6 since they retired, and it doesn’t sound as if that policy is changing anytime soon. So if the numbers have been frozen, why not retire them for good?
Fourth, the last Phillie to have his number retired was Ashburn, with Schmidt before that. How many current Phils fans ever got to see Schmidt play? Or Carlton? There is an entire generation, or two, of Phillies fans who have grown up watching post-Schmidt action. Is it really possible that no one from that five-year run is deserving of having their number retired? Wouldn’t it be good to give the fans of this generation something to get excited about when they look to the center field wall and see the numbers of players they watched up there?
This doesn’t have to be that hard. These are rules that can be changed, and they should be changed. After all, these types of ceremonies are for the fans, and the fans want to see at least some of these numbers retired.
Some tough choices will have to be made, for sure, but retiring the numbers of the team’s all-time hits leader and greatest shortstop in team history is a no-brainer. Retiring the number of the team’s greatest second baseman and a borderline Hall of Famer, a legitimate icon in the city, is a no-brainer. Retiring the number of one of the most beloved Phils of all-time, its best ever first baseman and the man who holds the team’s single-season home run record (a record that will probably never be broken) is a no-brainer.
Retiring the numbers of Hamels and Halladay is a tougher decision, in my opinion, but I would have no argument if the Phillies went ahead and honored them in the same way, too.
If you remove the Hall of Fame restriction, you may make it tougher on yourself to say “no” to someone else in the future. Regardless, it’s time to relax the rules.
On Episode 347 of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I talk about the Phils’ policy on number retirements, and try to figure out where the Phillies stand in the NL East at the moment.