Why is it that as we age some of us can’t remember family names and phone numbers…but we never forget the “numbers” worn by our favorite sports stars. Does that seem right, or fair? I say ABSOLUTELY! And to prove that aging makes the heart grow fonder…well, how many can you remember?
(Ed. Note: His subject matter was the stuff that true fans of sport anticipated, saved, and shared. We lost Dale prematurely three years ago, but we’re fortunate enough to have saved his work to share for those who will appreciate his unique perspective on the ‘minute’ details of sport – that which we remember long after we forget more important matters. Originally published in 2013, Indians fans will enjoy this encore Dale Meggas on Cleveland Indians’ players who distinguished a particular number, and why.)
In fact, the 1927 New York Yankees, widely accepted as the benchmark for a season of success, didn’t have numbers. The tradition began with the Bombers putting numbers on their jerseys back in 1929, followed two days later by the Indians.
The love of numbers continues today for most baseball fans.
Which brings us to those worn down through the years by the Indians, who are credited with being among the first to give us that phrase “you can’t tell the players without a program.”
My high school friend, Bob Szucs, and I used to play a game that found us picking a number and seeing how many players we could name who wore that digit on the back of their uniform.
The follow up was picking the very best for each number. With passing years, some new faces emerge at the top of the list for individual numbers.
So, with that, I give you what is one man’s picks for the very best in Tribe uniforms over more than 110 years of play at League Park, Cleveland Stadium and Progressive Field.
With that we begin.
#1 – Bobby Avila (1949-58) has held this spot on this list since he moved on to close his career with short stops with Milwaukee, Boston and Baltimore.
#2 – Jhonny Peralta (2005-10) heads a limited field that includes Brett Butler (1984-87).
#3 – Earl Averill (1930-39) isn’t Babe Ruth but he is in the Hall of Fame and that’s pretty heady stuff. Fan favorite Woody Held (1958-62) and Dale Mitchell (1951-56) of Don Larsen perfect game fame when he made the last out in that glorious game later in 1956, were distant runners-up.
#4 – Jim Hegan, (1951-57) one of the game’s best defensive catchers, who changed from #10 (1947-50) beats out Hall of Famer Joe Gordon (1947-50), who later was a Tribe manager but is more famous as a New York Yankee.
#5 – Lou Boudreau (1939-50) has this one retired by the Tribe but consolation mention has to go to Roger Maris (1958) who went on to Kansas City before great days with the New York Yankees (#9).
#6 – Rocky Colavito (1958-59) had this number ripped from him on his return to Cleveland by Gabe Paul, who changed the number system that demanded outfielders wear numbers 20-29. Rocky (#21 from 1965-67) was still miffed when asked about it just a couple of years back.
#7 – Al Rosen (1948-56) gets the nod over Hal Trosky (1934-41) with Kenny Lofton (1992-96, 1998-2001 and 2007) a strong third.
#8 – Albert Belle (1989-96) took this one from previous champ Ray Fosse (1967-72).
#9 – Luke Easter (1949-54) played on as many good teams as Carlos Baerga (1990-96, 1999) who both are ahead of Ron Hassey (1978-84), the only MLB catcher to catch two perfect games. He caught both Len Barker (1981 Cleveland) and Dennis Martinez (1991, Montreal).
#10 – Max Alvis (1962-69) was steady and gets the edge over Vic Power (1958-61).
#11 – Art Houtteman (1953-57) was part of that incredible 1954 pitching staff. He beats out a guy who might have been the best player might in Joe Adcock, (1963) but he did all of his damage with the Boston and Milwaukee Braves. Doug Jones (1988-91) gets honorable mention at this spot.
#12 – Graig Nettles (1970-72) proved to be even a better player with the Yankees while Robbie Alomar (1999-2001) was outstanding but still sits behind Nettles with the glove.
#13 – Omar Vizquel (1994-2004) is among few who took on the superstitions of that number along with one-year Indian John “Blue Moon” Odom (1975).
#14 – Larry Doby (1947-55, 1958) leads a crowded field and has the number retired in his name. Others were my favorite, Tito Francona (1959-62) who was moved to #24 by Gabe Paul in his number system switch in 1963, Julio Franco (1983-88), Chris Chambliss (1971-74) and Bob Feller (1937-38) before he switched to his famous #19.
#15 – Sandy Alomar (1990-2000) is well ahead of pitcher Johnny Allen (1936-40), famous for his torn undershirt that for years was in the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame.
#16 – Larry Brown (1963-71) is the winner, although Dwight Gooden (1998-99) was here at the end of his career and Fritz Peterson (1974-76) was the most famous, having been a part of the wife swap with Mike Kekich (#18 in 1973) back in the day.
#17 – Chico Salmon (1964-68) wins here, although Zoilo Versailes (1969) was an outstanding Minnesota Twin. Keith Hernandez (1990) is eliminated just because he took the money and ran when he was injured and saw he was on a crummy team that was nothing like his 1986 New York Mets.
#18 – Mel Harder (1930-47) has this one retired in his name, and takes the honor over the likes of Duane Kuiper (1974-81) and Barry Latman (1960-62), who also wore #32 in the Gabe Paul experiment. Latman became an Indian in a trade for Herb Score the day after Frank Lane traded Rocky Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn in 1960.
#19 – Bob Feller (1939-56) can’t be challenged but you have to mention Moe Berg (1931), whose bigger claim to fame was being a World War II spy.
#20 – Ray Narleski (1954-58) of the record setting 1954 team wins a close one that includes Frank Robinson (1975-76), who was a nice story but was a better player in Cincinnati and Dick Donovan (1962), who had a very good run after coming to Cleveland from Washington. An interesting member of this club is long-time Cincinnati Red standout Wally Post (1964). George Hendrick (1973-74) got strong consideration.
#21 – Bob Lemon (1947-58) wore a variety of numbers with the Tribe but his #21 is the one retired by the Indians. The club wearing the number include Mike Hargrove (1979-85) and Rocky Colavito (1965-67) along with George Hendrick (1975-76) who was a World Series winner with Oakland and St. Louis.
#22 – Mike Garcia (1948) also wore #7 that year but was later more familiar as #25. This field is slim with Al Luplow (1963-65) changing from #32 after the Gabe Paul number switch experiment along with Bert Blyleven (1981), who was better known with the Tribe for his #28 (1981-85).
#23 – Vic Wertz (1954-58) of that famous bald head photo wins. Most others with that number had their larger success with other teams. They include Willie Horton (1978), David Justice (1997-2000), Tommy Agee (1963) and Johnny Antonelli (1961).
#24 – Manny Ramirez (1993-2000) edges Hall of Famer Early Wynn (1949-57) because we can give Wynn #38, which he wore when he won his 300th game in 1963 for the Tribe at Kansas City. The field also includes the father-son duo of Tito (1963-64) and Terry Francona (1988) and the Bogalusa, La. Bomber, Charlie Spikes (1973-77).
#25 – Jim Thome (1992-2002, 2011) wins a tight race with Mike Garcia (1949-59) and Buddy Bell (1973-78) with a nostalgic mention to Vic Davalillo (1963-68) who might have been one of the all-time best pinch hitters, winning World Series with both Pittsburgh and Oakland after leaving Cleveland.
#26 – This group is led by a trio of outstanding players who did their damage for other teams. They are Boog Powell (1975-76), Sal Maglie (1955-56) and Hoyt Wilhelm (1957-58). You pick your own winner.
#27 – I go with Leon Wagner (1963-68) with second going to Herb Score (1955-59) who had potential but came up short due to eye and arm injuries.
#28 – Bert Blyleven (1981-85) gets the best of Rick Manning (1975-81).
#29 – Andre Thornton (1977-87) on strength of being club home run king for a number of years.
#30 – Dick Donovan (1963-65) was a big winner in his stay here with Joe Carter (1984-89) second. Fritz Peterson (1974) gets a mention for his wife swapping history.
#31 – Cliff Lee (2005-09) over Cy Young over Jim Perry (1959-63, 1974-75). Others include Hall of Famer Dave Winfield (1995) and Oscar Grimes (1938) because I interviewed his wife on the story of his career with Cleveland and New York Yankees.
#32 – While this is the most famous Browns number, it is a toss up for the Indians. Do I pick Roger Maris (1957) over either Ralph Terry (1965) or Dean Chance (1970). I just don’t know.
#33 – Jim Grant (1958-64) or Luis Tiant (1964-69)? Either beats out Eddie Murray (1994-96).
#34 – Steve Hargan (1965-72) was solid, especially with 1968 pitching staff to take this number over rookie of the year Joe Charboneau (1980-82) or Jim Kern (1974-78).
#35 – Phil Niekro (1986-87) at the end of his Hall of Fame career over Pedro Ramos (1963-64) who left here and won 1964 pennant with his relief pitching in September for New York Yankees.
#36 – Gaylord Perry (1972-75) who also wore #35 in 1972 is runaway winner here because I don’t remember Camilo Pasqual (1971) pitching for the Tribe.
#37 – Jimmy Piersall (1959-61) gets the nod here over Chad Ogea (1994-98) who would have won World Series MVP if Indians had held on to beat Florida Marlins in 1997 and Dennis Eckersley (1975-77) who tossed a no-hitter before doing great things in Oakland.
#38 – Early Wynn (1963) for wearing this number for his 300th win with Cleveland on the road against Kansas City Athletics. It’s also the number worn by Rocky Colavito (1955-57) before he switched to #6.
#39 – Gary Bell (1958-67) had a better career here than Len Barker (1979-83) despite his perfect game in 1981.
#40 – Ken Harrelson (1969-71) over Bud Black (1988-90) just because The Hawk was The Hawk.
#41 – Charles Nagy (1990-2002) gets the winning card over catchers Victor Martinez (2004-09) and Carlos Santana (2010-present).
#42 – Sonny Siebert (1964-69) who was also on that 1968 staff and tossed the first no-hitter I got to see live (June 10, 1966)wins with honorable mention to Carlos Martinez (1992-93), famous for his home run off Jose Canseco’s head in 1993.
#43 – Rick Sutcliffe (1983-84) who had an outstanding second half of the 1984 season in Chicago when he was traded to the Cubs win this thin field.
#44 – Don McMahon (1964-66) in his relief role out of the Tribe bullpen gets it over designated hitter Cliff Johnson (1970-80).
#45 – Paul Assenmacher (1995-99) played for two pennant winners here so he gets the award.
#46 – Dick Radatz (1966-67) really did pitch well here but missed going to the World Series with the Red Sox in 1967 because he was here. And he was better than Steve Dunning (1970-73) and Doug Jones (1987-88) who was better when he wore number 11.
#47 – Jesse Orosco (1989-91) was better for the Mets but who really remembers Jack Morris (1994) on the first Tribe team at Jacobs Field?
#48 – Sam McDowell (1964-71) who started out with #17 and moved to #34 before settling on #48, wins for claiming a number of American League strike out crowns over Tribe’s career DH home run leader Travis Hafner (2003-2012).
#49 – Tom Candiotti (1986-91) wins this battle over Jose Mesa (1992-98)
Numbers 50 and higher had limited use or had forgettable players for the Tribe so we only hit on a couple.
#50 – Ray Barker (1965) had a short stay here but for very sad reasons so did Steve Olin (1989). Barker was OK as a backup first baseman. Olin never did get a chance to win this award.
#53 – Paul Shuey (1994-2002) had a solid career and a high number to boot.
#54 – Chris Perez (2009-current) has had a good career with Tribe and has a chance to have a great career in this number.
#55 – Orel Hershiser (1995-97) was key in the Indians going to a pair of World Series in his stay here after an outstanding career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
#63 – Justin Masterson (2009-current) for our final selection has a chance to be a good one so why not give him honors for this football number now?