Retiring Numbers a Rare Task for Tribe

With the Cleveland Indians in town this weekend, the New York Yankees are eliminating two more numbers from the already long list of digits never to be worn again by the storied Major League franchise.

Saturday, the Yankees retired the number 20 worn by longtime catcher Jorge Posada in a ceremony prior to the game, a 6-2 win by the hometown team. On Sunday, left-handed pitcher Andy Pettitte will join him, with a large number of wins aiding his cause and admitted HGH use driving those against such an honor. In total, the Sunday addition of Pettitte’s 46 will make 22 numbers retired by the Yankee franchise, with the inevitable retirement of the number two of Derek Jeter removing each of the first ten numbers from use by future Bronx Bombers.

The Indians, meanwhile, have not retired the number of one of their own players since June 20th, 1998, when the number 21, worn by Bob Lemon, joined the short list on the walls at then Jacobs Field. Since then, only the number 455 has been retired, done so on April 22nd, 2001, to honor the consecutive sellout streak set by the franchise and their fans from June 12th, 1995, to April 2nd, 2001.

Are the Yankees too quick to honor their players of yesteryear with one of the ultimate forms of recognition? Or is there such a steep drop off between the caliber of players to sport pinstripes versus those who toiled in mediocrity for the majority of the history of the Indians franchise?

The amount of numbers retired by Cleveland is to some degree on par with other franchises that have been around as long as the Indians.

The Boston Red Sox have retired eight numbers, not including that of Jackie Robinson. Philadelphia’s former and current teams have each retired just five of their own. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs have each retired six, the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants have done so nine times, and the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, and Los Angeles Dodgers have set aside ten numbers. The St. Louis Cardinals lead the pack with a dozen numbers retired, not counting that of Robinson.

Some comparatively younger franchises, including the Baltimore Orioles (six), Houston Astros (nine), Los Angeles Angels (five), Milwaukee Brewers (five), Minnesota Twins (seven), and San Diego Padres (five), have numbers similar to that of the Indians.

When looking over Indians history, the numbers that have been retired are all deserving in their own right.

The number three of Earl Averill was retired on June 8th, 1975, by Cleveland to recognize “The Earl of Snohomish” for his eleven years of service to the Indians organization. He hit .322 in his Cleveland career and was an All-Star in each of the game’s first six years from 1933 to 1938. He retired as the Indians all-time home run leader and still ranks fourth on that list after three big boppers of the 1990’s surpassed him. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1975.

Lou Boudreau, player-manager that guided the Indians to one of their two World Series victories while earning the 1948 Most Valuable Player award, saw his number five retired on July 9th, 1970. He spent 13 of his 15 MLB seasons in Cleveland as the team’s shortstop and manager. He made seven All-Star teams in the 1940’s and is just one of three Indians to win the MVP award in team history. It took him 14 years after first appearing on the ballot to be selected for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 1970.

The retiring of Larry Doby’s 14 on July 3rd, 1994, was the first step in honoring an overlooked baseball legend. He has since been elected to the Hall of Fame (1998), placed on a United States Postal Service stamp (2012), had a street in Cleveland named after him (Eagle Avenue in 2012), and this season, was eternalized in statue form outside of Progressive Field. He spent ten of 13 seasons in Cleveland and was a seven-time All-Star. He finished second in the 1954 AL MVP voting after leading the league with career highs in homers (32) and RBI (126).

His 14 was worn all the way into the 1992 season, with several notables to wear it on the field, including Tito Francona, Chris Chambliss, and Julio Franco.

Mel Harder was a lifelong Indian, retiring just one season shy of enjoying the 1948 World Series victory as a player instead of as a coach. “Chief” spent 20 seasons in the Majors, winning 223 games in his career and making four All-Star teams, and hung around after his playing career as pitching coach for the team from 1948 to 1963. He is the only Indians player to have his number retired without becoming a Hall of Famer.

Bob Feller has the dual honor of having his number 19 retired as well as being the first former Indians great to be memorialized with a statue outside of the ball park in 1994. His contributions to the Indians franchise, the MLB, and the war cause during fighting in World War II, are well documented. He won 266 games with a career 3.25 ERA and 2,581 strikeouts while missing almost four seasons during his military commitments. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962, joined by Robinson, and spent the remainder of his life as an ambassador of the franchise and the game of baseball. His number was retired on December 27th, 1956.

He is the only Indians player to be recognized who was the last to wear the number before it was retired, and the honor seems befitting of Feller.

Lemon, the longtime Indians pitcher who was converted from a third baseman and outfielder, joined the group in 1998. Like many others to be honored, he was a seven-time All-Star, making them in consecutive appearances from 1948 to 1954. He won 20 games or more seven times in his career and three different times led the league. He spent his entire 13-year MLB playing career with the Indians after spending three years in the United States Navy. He was elected to the Hall of Fame on January 22nd, 1976, after first appearing on the ballot in 1964.

The number 42 of Robinson was retired league-wide on April 15th, 1997.

Are there any players past or present who could see their number retired for good by the Tribe in the years to come?

Easily the first name to come to mind is the man who resides with Feller and Doby as a statue in downtown Cleveland, Jim Thome.

Few have worn the number of Thome since he wore it with regularity during his first stint with the club. After he left in 2002, it did not find its way back onto the diamond for the Indians until Ryan Garko wore it for parts of five seasons beginning in 2005. Andy Marte also sported the digits in 2009 and 2010 before Thome got it back during his reunion tour of 2011. Since his most recent exit, Vinny Rottino briefly wore it in 2012 and Jason Giambi wore it for parts of his two seasons with Cleveland before he unofficially retired the number and switched to 72 to wrap up the final season of his own Major League career.

Thome spent 13 of 22 seasons in Clevleand, hitting .287 in an Indians uniform while setting a club record for home runs with 337. He finished his career with 612 blasts, placing him seventh on a list filled with the most prolific sluggers in the history of the game.

It remains to be seen if Thome will join Feller and Doby in double-dipping in honors with a statue and a retired number, but it is hard to envision any other player representing 25 in a manner even close to that of Thome. It is not so much if Thome will have his number retired, but when the Indians will end the drought of retired numbers at his.

For some fans, it is painful to see the number 13 on the field being worn by any player other than one of the most gifted glovesmen in the last few decades to say the least in Omar Vizquel. He is a legend amongst the fans and his feats of athleticism and skill re-established what a defensive-minded shortstop could contribute to a team. He was no slouch at the plate though, as he finished his 24-year career with a .272 batting average and 2,877 hits. He was an eleven-time Gold Glove winner and a three-time All-Star, with all but three of the defensive honors coming in Cleveland.

Since departing the Indians in 2004, Tim Laker wore Vizquel’s number briefly in 2006 and Asdrubal Cabrera left a little to be desired by someone wearing the same number and playing the same position as Vizquel. This season, Tyler Holt has worn it after wearing 62 in his debut season.

Vizquel is an interesting consideration and is always a unique talking point with others, especially non-Indians fans, about the possibilities of him realistically joining the other baseball greats in Cooperstown one day.

Another fan favorite without his number retired is Rocky Colavito, but he becomes an interesting discussion piece because he wore multiple numbers throughout his stay in Cleveland. He wore 38 at the beginning of his career before switching to six. When he returned to the Indians in 1965, he switched to the now-retired 21. He hit 190 homers in his career in Cleveland and 374 overall. Maybe the club can retired the remaining two numbers he wore in an effort to break his curse?

Many of the best to play in the city of Cleveland whose names are not included on the six former Indians players to have their numbers retired played in an era that pre-dated numbers on jerseys.

Elmer Flick, Addie Joss, Nap Lajoie, and Cy Young are all members of the Baseball Hall of Fame and played with the Cleveland Naps.

Stan Coveleski and Tris Speaker both played prior to the addition of numbers in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Joe Sewell was tasked with becoming the Indians shortstop in the wake of the tragic death of Ray Chapman in 1920 and spent eleven of his 14 seasons with the Indians, but just briefly wore numbers for Cleveland in his last two seasons with the club before joining the Yankees. Al Rosen, who spent ten years with the team in the 1940’s and 1950’s, had three short seasons to begin that ten-year span, limiting number seven to just seven solid seasons of contributions to the Indians, including four straight All-Star nods from 1952 to 1955 and the last of the MVP awards won by an Indians player back in 1953.

For whatever reason, whether it be an unwillingness to diminish the honor of the retired number or not having worthy enough players to recognize, the Indians organization has not retired a new number in quite some time.

Are there any former Indians you could see or would want to see have their numbers join the eight remembered in the Indians’ upper deck at Progressive Field?

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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