July 4, 1939, remains one of the most emotional days in sports history. The Yankee Stadium crowd assembled to honor Lou Gehrig and bear witness to his “Luckiest Man” speech. Co-owner Ed Barrow was one of the less memorable speakers that day. He announced the club would never give #4 to another player ever again, thus making it one of the only retired numbers in professional sports and the first in MLB.
As decades passed, the New York Yankees remain the unquestioned best franchise in sports at celebrating their own history. They now have nearly as many retired numbers as they do active players on the roster. They have taken 21 jersey numbers out of circulation, including two of them twice (8 and 42) as well as all single-digit numbers.
The retired-number boom isn’t purely for the sake of nostalgia and perpetuating the Yankee aura; there are capitalistic reasons for the pomp and circumstance. These ceremonies generate attendance, merchandise sales, and ratings. In other words, don’t expect the club to pump the brakes any time soon.
That’s all well and good, but there is a finite amount of numbers that can appear on the back of a uniform without breaking generally accepted norms. Only integers 0-99, as well as 00, have ever adorned a baseball jersey. Of the 101 possible numbers available, 21 are already retired. That leaves 80 numbers for the current uniformed personnel. At their current rate of retirement, when will the Yankees run out?
Numbers of Numbers
How many numbers does the team need at any given time? For starters, there are 26 players, each with their own number of course. There are many more than that in Spring Training, but players are allowed to share uniform numbers in the Grapefruit League. More pertinently, looking at only the 26-man roster presumes no players on the IL, which is almost never the case. Teams don’t reissue numbers belonging to injured players.
In 2021, the Yankees used 55 unique numbers for players. Depending on your perspective, they’re either getting more creative or simply running out of stock. Hoy Park became the second player in MLB history to don #98. Estevan Florial (#90) and Trey Amburgey (#95) were just the third players ever to wear their numbers. They deployed every number from 81-86.
Even though they used 55 numbers last year, they could recycle more if need be. Four numbers were shared by two players at separate times: #30 (Jay Bruce and Joely Rodríguez), #36 (Mike Ford and Jonathan Davis), #39 (Mike Tauchman and Ryan LaMarre), and #61 (Brody Koerner and Asher Wojciechowski). Let’s assume every player on the 40-man roster at any given time needs a unique number, reducing the crunch by 15.
There are also seven coaches allowed by MLB rules— at least for now. This includes managers, three of whom have their numbers retired by the Yankees: #1 Billy Martin, #6 Joe Torre, and #37 Casey Stengel. (#8 Yogi Berra was also a Yankee manager, but his number is retired as a player.) From 1981-2012, rules limited each team to six coaches. The seventh was allowed in 2013. In practice, many organizations have coaching staffs significantly larger than that. For example, the Yankees plan to employ three hitting coaches in 2022. Not all of them will be permitted a numerated uniform, but it’s not hard to envision the rules changing again in the near future.
Rate of Retired Numbers
Conservatively, assuming no roster rule changes for players or coaches, the Yankees need to find 47 numbers at any point in time. with 101 possibilities minus 21 honored in Monument Park, they have room to retire 33 more numbers. How soon will they get there?
The Yankees have existed since the early 20th century, but the retired-number explosion didn’t begin until 1969. Prior to then, only three numbers had been removed from circulation: Gehrig’s #4 in 1939, Babe Ruth’s #3 in 1948, and Joe DiMaggio’s #5 in 1952. Mickey Mantle’s #7 is certainly just as deserving of commemoration, but when it was retired the floodgates opened. Since then, they’ve averaged one retired number every 2.9 years.
If they maintain this rate, they have 95 years remaining until they exhaust their 33-number cushion. They would run out of numbers in the year 2117. By then, roster rules for both players and coaches will undoubtedly have changed. Most likely, someone will break the unofficial “must be an integer” rule and open up fractions and decimals. For that matter, triple-digit and negative numbers could be in play as well.
There isn’t a formula for predicting whose number will become retired. Going purely by statistics, Álex Rodríguez’s #13 should’ve been retired by now, but there doesn’t appear to be any groundswell for obvious reasons. Willie Randolph (#30), Mel Stottlemyre (#30), and Roy White (#6) all played more than ten years and compiled at least 40 bWAR for the Yankees, then later rejoined the team as a coach, yet none of them have their numbers retired.
Several recently retired Yankees could foreseeably have their number retired soon. Only four pitchers have their numbers retired currently: #16 Whitey Ford, #42 Mariano Rivera, #46 Andy Pettitte, and #49 Ron Guidry. Could Hall of Famer Mike Mussina’s #35 join them? How about CC Sabathia’s #52?
A few active Yankees could be the last to wear their numbers too. Aaron Judge is on a career arc that could end with #99 in Monument Park. Gerrit Cole’s #45 will force that conversation in a few years. Brett Gardner remains in limbo between active and retired, but it won’t be easy for the club to reissue #11. Aaron Boone’s job was in jeopardy by the end of last season but couldn’t they win the World Series this year and keep him as their manager for the next 15-20 years? It’s not likely, but it’s not impossible either, and if so, they would surely retire #17.
If you’re old enough to read this article, you won’t be around by 2117 to see how the Yankees resolve the number crunch. Even if they’re somewhat forced to give players like Chris Gittens an ugly number such as 92, they have plenty of room for more retirements. Keep those ceremonies coming!