Ah, the prestige of the single digit uniform number.
In an interesting bit of synergy, the St. Louis Cardinals have ten world championships and ten retired numbers. (While their “numbers” are also retired, Rogers Hornsby and Jack Buck do not have actual numbers associated with them.)
Of the ten, four wore single digit numbers – Ozzie Smith’s number 1, Red Schoendienst at 2, Stan Musial with number 6 and Enos Slaughter with 9. Each is a Hall of Famer.
Before he was unceremoniously released earlier this week, second baseman Adam Kennedy, not to be confused for a future Hall of Famer, proudly wore number 7 for the last two seasons.
Kennedy became the 37th player or coach to do so since the club first experimented with numbers on their sleeves way back in 1923. In the summer of 1932, numbers initially appeared on the backs of the Cardinals uniforms. Early on, position players traditionally took 1 through 9 while pitchers were assigned from 10 up.
The number seven, known for its universal connotation of good luck, hasn’t been so great overall in terms of blessing the Cardinals players that wore it – and I am not even thinking of Kennedy when I say that.
There were a few standouts, however.
The best and most famous Cardinals number 7 was undoubtedly outfielder Joe “Ducky” Medwick, one of the most beloved players of the Gas House Gang era and the last National League player to take the Triple Crown, in 1937. (Wouldn’t it be great to see the current number 5 make his run for that title?)
Medwick wore the uniform with the number 7 from 1933 until his trade/sale to Brooklyn in 1940. Over at Scout.com two years ago, we ranked Ducky as the 12th-best Cardinals player of all time. (He was 11th on my personal list.)
The other most prominent Cardinals to don a uniform with “7” on the back were first baseman Bill White, in his end-of-career return to the club in 1969 and outfielder Reggie Smith, who was with the team from 1974 into the 1976 season.
More recently, in the Tony La Russa era which began in 1996, only five players have been assigned number 7. Like Kennedy, almost all of them were second basemen – four to be exact.
In addition to Kennedy (2007-2008), they had Ronnie Belliard (2006) who joined the club during their most recent world championship season in a trade for Hector Luna (2004-2006), whose number he assumed. The other number 7 second baseman during those years was Delino DeShields (1997-1998).
In between the latter two, we had one of the most polarizing Cardinals in recent times, outfielder J.D. Drew, who wore number 7 from 1999 through 2003, whether in the lineup, on the trainer’s table or on the disabled list.
Let’s consider the other single digit Cardinals currently on the roster.
Newcomer Khalil Greene snagged number 3, for a long time known as the designation for another shortstop, Edgar Renteria. Yadier Molina holds down number 4, worn earlier in the decade by second baseman Fernando Vina.
I forget who number 5 is, but I hear he is pretty good. Third baseman Troy Glaus completes the current single digit crew with his number 8, picked up from hitting coach Hal McRae, who now sports Jim Edmonds’ old number 15. Kennedy also previously donned number 8 back in 1999.
So, what might the Cardinals do with number 7 for the 2009 season?
If they were to land a big fish in a trade or via free agent signing, he might be the likely recipient. Yet that seems like a long shot proposition during this time of baseball belt-tightening. Instead, is there an in-house candidate deserving of the recognition?
While this wouldn’t entirely be akin to Mickey Mantle being assigned the number 7 as a 19-year-old rookie with the 1951 Yankees, anointed as the heir apparent to replace the club’s own number 5, retiring legend Joe DiMaggio in centerfield, I don’t see anyone among the current Cardinals in line for such an honor.
It is worth noting the man some might consider the Cardinals’ own young Mick, Colby Rasmus, has already been elevated up the uniform number pecking order.
The organization’s top prospect will be wearing number 28 this spring, a most unusual assignment for a non-roster invitee. That is quite the contrast from the 70’s and 80’s his peer group will be donning and the number 84 Rasmus himself was issued last spring.
Of the 18 pitchers on the 2009 spring roster, the lowest number is Kyle Lohse at 26. Before you suggest Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter might be in line to make a change to the lucky not-so-lucky number, be aware that single digit uniforms and Cardinals pitchers are like the Cubs and World Series victories.
OK, that is a bit of an exaggeration. It hasn’t quite been 101 years, but over half. Not only has no pitcher worn a single digit uniform in the La Russa era, there wasn’t one during the Torre, Herzog or even Schoendienst managerial stints either.
In fact, ever since the 1930’s, when the first numbers were aligned with spots in the batting order, pitchers just didn’t wear single digits, in St. Louis or anywhere else, for that matter. And while there are exceptions now and then, generally the low numbers have remained the exclusive domain of position players for over seventy years.
The last time I can verify that a Cardinals pitcher wore a single digit was 54 years ago, all the way back in 1955. For all of one game, half of his major league career, then-29 year old switch-hitting, right-handed reliever Tony Jacobs suited up wearing St. Louis uniform number 1.
It was on Opening Day, April 12, 1955, when Jacobs took the Wrigley Field mound during the second inning. Nine runs were charged to his two predecessors that day and in his two innings of work against his former Cubs teammates, Jacobs yielded four more. After that 14-4 loss, he would never again pitch in the majors.
Prior to Jacobs, Erv “Four Sack” Dusak was the last Cardinals pitcher to wear a single digit number. Though primarily an outfielder during his parts of nine seasons in the bigs, Dusak also pitched in 23 career games. His busiest mound season was in 1950 when he toed the rubber in 14 games, going 0-2 with a 3.56 ERA.
What digit was on Dusak’s uniform in 1950? You guessed it – number 7!
Perhaps the 2009 Cardinals will do with their current number 7 what they did during La Russa’s first season in St. Louis in 1996. That year, the number went unassigned. All things considered, it might be better that way.