NEWS ITEM: The Boston Red Sox announced that they will retire Wade Boggs’ number 26.
Congratulations to Monsieur Boggs on a well-deserved honor. The third baseman won five batting titles during his 11 years with the Red Sox. That he later played with the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays shouldn’t be held against him. Boggs is also bound for baseball’s Hall-of-Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which happens to be a criterion to have the BoSox retire one’s number—Johnny Pesky (#7) being the lone exception, understandably.Number retirements by sports teams are a relatively recent phenomenon. Consider that George Selkirk and Cliff Mapes wore number 3 for the Yankees long after Babe Ruth had left the team.
Some teams are more promiscuous with their number retirements than others. The Boston Celtics are a prime example of a team with a generous retirement policy, having retired 21 numbers. Yes, TWENTY-ONE! Plus Johnny Most’s microphone and the nickname (Loscy) for the late Jim Loscutoff.
Paul Pierce’s number 34 will certainly be the 22nd number to be retired. But does Kevin Garnett’s number 5 deserve the royal treatment, as some propose? Garnett only played for Boston for six seasons, one less than Dennis Johnson, who had his number 3 retired by the team.
Of course there was special Celtic sentiment for the likes of Reggie Lewis (#35) and Easy Ed Macauley (#22) but do those numbers deserve to be displayed alongside Bill Russell’s number 6 or Larry Bird’s number 33? Teams can dilute the honor by making it too routine. Yes, I’m talking about Cedric Maxwell’s number 31. As Red Auerbach said, “He wasn’t that good!”
College teams retire numbers as well. The University of North Carolina Tar Heel men’s team has such a storied tradition that they developed strict requirements for uniform retirements. To be so-honored a Tar Heel must be more than special. He must be MVP of a national title team, an ACC “Player-of-the-Year,” a first-team All-American, and/or a member of a Gold Medal Winning Olympic team.
Which brings us to Plymouth State University and Joe Dudek, its All-America running back in the early 80’s. Dudek scored more touchdowns than any college player in history, set numerous rushing records for several championship teams, finished in the top-ten of the Heisman Trophy voting, and then spent two years with the Denver Broncos. His number 22 was informally retired by Plymouth State, and in 1989 the college decided to make it official by having a Joe Dudek Day at Currier Field. Unfortunately, several faculty members chose to make a public issue over the fact that Dudek had not yet satisfied graduation requirements. (He has since earned his diploma.) A local paper ran a story about the faculty concerns and a wire service account made it a national story. The undesired attention created a regrettable distraction which perhaps diminished the recognition. To his credit, Plymouth State President William Farrell made it a point to be on the field with Dudek for the ceremony.
The attention given to Dudek’s graduation status was almost certainly the reason that some college teams chose to retire player numbers after their final season ended, but before graduation, or non-graduation. For example, Indiana University’s superstar running back Anthony Thompson had his number retired right after his last 1989 home game with the Hoosiers. IU apparently knew he wasn’t going to graduate and learned from the Dudek experience not to mess with faculty who might be jealous of the attention given to football players.
Anyway, congrats again to Wade Boggs. And upon further review, let’s keep Cornbread Maxwell’s number 31 retired. I’ll never forget his Game 7 heroics against the Lakers in 1984, and I think Auerbach was kidding when he said Max wasn’t that good.
Happy New Year!
What was the first ever sports number to be retired? (A repeat question. Answer follows.)
Born Today …
That is to say, sports standouts born on New Year’s Eve include NBA guard and Rick’s son Brent Barry (1971) and star NFL running back Hugh McElhenny (1928).
“I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia. Not because I had it, but because I couldn’t spell it.” – Legendary boxer Rocky Graziano
The first pro sports number ever to be retired was Ace Bailey’s “6” which was retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1934.
Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management for Plymouth State University and for NHTI-Concord. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines)—which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is email@example.com.