It’s time for the Tigers to retire more uniform numbers

Five of the six numbers the Detroit Tigers have retired can be seen on this wall in deep center field at Comerica Park.

Take a look deep into center field at Comerica Park and you’ll see the uniform numbers that have been retired by the Detroit Tigers. There aren’t many – only six – but there should be more. The Tigers have several players for whom they should retire numbers to honor their significance to team history.

The six numbers: 2, 5, 6, 11, 16, and 23, are retired for Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Sparky Anderson, Hal Newhouser, and Willie Horton. The greatest player in team history – Ty Cobb – played before the introduction of uniform numbers. Other players: Harry Heilmann, Heinie Manush, Hughie Jennings, Sam Crawford, Mickey Cochrane, and George Kell, have their names on the wall out there but their numbers have not been retired. Just six men have had their uniform numbers retired by the team, which is the smallest amount for any of the original 16 teams that date back at least to the 1901 season.

The first retirement ceremonies occurred in 1980, when Kaline’s #6 was honored. Three years later, Gehringer and Greenberg’s #2 and #5 were retired at Tiger Stadium. Newhouser’s #16 was retired by the team in 1997; Horton followed in 2000, and in 2011, finally, Sparky’s #11 was retired. By the time the team honored Sparky by retiring his number, the former Tiger manager had been dead for several months.

For some reason, even though Sparky had been a Hall of Famer for a decade before he died, the team did not retire his number. Well, the reason is not hard to guess – team owner Mike Ilitch was still holding a grudge against Anderson for having refused to manage replacement players during a dispute between the owners and players in the 1990s. As a result, Tiger fans never got to see and hear Sparky accept his much deserved honor. It was a shame.

Three players who Sparky managed for many years deserve to have their numbers retired: Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker. None of them are in the Hall of Fame, and only Morris and Trammell even have a chance to be voted in by the baseball writers, but all three rank among the greatest to wear the Old English D. The #47 of Morris, Trammell’s #3, and Whitaker’s #1 should all be written  on the brick wall at Comerica Park.

The Tigers should rectify that situation now, because stubbornly clinging to their policy of only retiring numbers of players who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame is shortsighted. It denies fans the opportunity to celebrate the careers of great Detroit players while they are still alive.

It’s also not really a policy, considering the franchise retired #23 for Horton, who is not in the Hall of Fame at all. Horton was honored just as much for having grown up in Detroit as he was for his playing career (which was excellent). Horton has been an employee of the Tigers for several years in the front office, and his relationship with the Ilitches most certainly helped him get his number retired.

But let me be clear – I have no problem with Horton having his number retired, it’s just that if the Tigers can make an exception for Horton, why not for Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker? And while we’re at it, what about two superstars from the ’68 Tigers: Norm Cash and Mickey Lolich? Lolich won more than 200 games for the Tigers, won three in the ’68 Series, and still holds the record for most strikeouts by a left-hander in American League history. He’s frequently on the veterans committe list for consideration for the Hall of Fame. Cash has at least as much a claim to having his number retired as Horton, if we base it solely on performance on the field. Cash hit more homers and drove in more runs as a Tiger than Horton did. His #25 and Lolich’s #29 deserve to be honored. Unfortunately, Cash is gone, but Lolich is still with us and Tiger fans deserve to see him be honored.

If the Tigers wish to make a distinction between Hall of Famers at Comerica, they can reserve the statues in left center field for those enshrined in Cooperstown. Again, Horton already has a statue there, but going forward the policy could be followed.

Retiring uniform numbers is a celebration of the team’s history, of the city history, and it also allows fans to remember special moments from their history with the team. It’s an honorable thing to do. It creates another special day where we can all talk about the National Pastime. Nothing is more special in Detroit.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.