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Don’t retire Herzog’s number – a different approach

Grade inflation. It is a major problem for educators as everyone strives to be above-average and too many are achieving it.

Whitey Herzog (AP photo)The St. Louis Cardinals have a similar problem, retired number inflation. It seems when anyone from the current generation enters Baseball’s Hall of Fame and sometimes even when they have no chance of election (Willie McGee), the retired number drums beat long and hard across Cardinal Nation.

The most recent example:

In his congratulatory post for the much-deserved selection of Whitey Herzog into the Hall on Monday, the Post-Dispatch’s influential columnist Bernie Miklasz took the lead in pushing for the St. Louis Cardinals to retire Herzog’s number 24.

In the linked post, the primary reasons offered in support of Whitey are as follows:

  • “he’s officially a Hall of Famer”
  • “He pulled the Cardinals out of the baseball depression of the 1970s” and “completelu (sic) revitalized the franchise”
  • “put together a roster that won three NL pennants and a World Series in the ’80s”
  • “did so with a unique style” that was “grand entertainment”

Let’s take them one at time with my personal commentary.

  • Whitey is a Hall of Famer. That cannot be debated. Thankfully, there are substantially more Cardinals in the Hall than there are retired jerseys, however. In fact, I am not alone in believing there are other more deserving Cardinals Hall of Famers whose numbers are not retired. Examples include Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch and Ducky Medwick. Common thread – current Cardinals fans and writers never saw them play.
  • Herzog revitalized the franchise. Very true but so have others at different times. Branch Rickey’s “number” isn’t retired, for example, and he is the greatest Cardinals executive ever, bar none. Before Rickey arrived, the Cardinals had spent two consecutive decades in the second division.
  • Whitey put together the championship roster. Also valid. He should get extra points for having been the general manager. So should Rickey, who is also number six on the club’s all-time list for managerial wins.
  • Herzog had unique and entertaining clubs. Agreed, but so were manager Frisch’s Gas House Gang teams of the 1930’s. I would not give extra style points consideration here.

Though I am not seeing enough uniqueness in his above arguments, Miklasz went as far as to make the assumptive statement that he is “confident that the Cardinals will get it done” for Herzog this coming season.

Rick Ankiel (Getty Images/Stephen Dunn)24’s recent history

In a possible indication of how the organization might feel about the matter, let’s consider how number 24 has been handled since Herzog’s departure.

It has been worn by at least nine Cardinals since 1992, from the famous (Don Baylor, Dmitri Young, Eric Davis and Bobby Bonilla) to the obscure (Bryan Eversgerd, Tom Urbani and Rick Croushore). Most recently, bench coach Joe Pettini and free agent outfielder Rick Ankiel sported number 24 jerseys.

Conversely, other prominent numbers, such as Mark McGwire’s 25 and McGee’s 51 (with one very brief exception) have remained out of circulation since the respective days each player retired. (For the record, I am not in favor of retiring either of these numbers. Just pointing out the differences.)

Avoiding temptation

Especially after seeing recent decisions by the franchise, I would be strongly in favor of a five- or perhaps even ten-year moratorium on retiring numbers after Hall induction. When a new Hall of Famer from the current generation is inducted, the strong temptation is to bow to sentiment and immediately retire that individual’s number. That expectation should not be created.

This would have to be a self-imposed ban, however, as ownership makes the call on what numbers to retire and when based on whatever criteria they happen to favor at that particular moment in time.

The need for greater restraint became painfully evident when the number 42 of Bruce Sutter, who spent all of four seasons with the Cardinals, was retired to celebrate his 2006 induction.

Just imagine how many retired numbers there would be if the club did that for every Hall of Famer who was a part of one World Series champion, played four years with the Cardinals or was employed by the club that length of time? Every season, the team would have players in the triple digits on the field and the entire outfield wall would be covered with “honorees”.

Old timers are old news

When 1940’s manager Billy Southworth was enshrined in Cooperstown in the summer of 2008, there was no groundswell of demand that his number be retired. There wasn’t even a ceremony at Busch Stadium to mark the occasion. For the record, Southworth enjoyed greater success at the helm of the Cardinals than Herzog (two World Championships and a .642 winning percentage vs. Whitey’s one and .530).

Any one who knows anything about Cardinals history would place the accomplishments of any of the three Hall of Famers of Bottomley, Medwick and Frisch ahead of McGee, yet it is the latter who today’s fans want recognized.

This is why I think there should be a substantial waiting period – to ensure the honorees’ feats truly stand the test of time. For this franchise more than most any other, the bar should remain extremely high.

The Cardinals aren’t being “cheap” here as they already have 12 retired “numbers”, counting Rogers Hornsby and Jack Buck. That is the second-most in Major League Baseball behind the Yankees (15 numbers for 16 individuals). The Dodgers have ten.

A potential solution

Rather than just complain about the problem, I offer a potential solution.

While the mistakes of the past cannot be corrected, I believe one solution is to establish a Cardinals Hall of Fame, Level of Excellence, Ring of Honor or choose your term. It would be a way to celebrate the top individuals in the history of the franchise without having to make irrational and convoluted number-retirement decisions.

In my humble opinion, this would have been a better way to acknowledge special non-uniform personnel like Gussie Busch and Buck. It could also offer a way to recognize favorites that just don’t measure up to Hall of Fame and/or retired number status, such as McGee. By definition, it could encompass all the Cardinals Hall of Famers, including Herzog and those former greats seemingly forgotten over time.

In the future, if it is deemed some of the Ring of Honor individuals warrant retired number status, they could always be given an upgrade.

For now, instead of bowing to inflation, why not institute a two-tiered structure that keeps the retired number honor for the very best of the best?

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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