Retirement mysteries

Brian Walton tries to learn how and when Cardinals numbers are retired and statues are commissioned.

We see them every time we venture into Busch Stadium or catch the Cardinals on television.

That flag deck up in the highest reaches of the park with pennants on individual poles, each labeled with gold numbers and lettering, recognizing those who have excelled with the bat, the glove, their arms and legs, via their decisions, from behind the microphone and even in ownership of the franchise.

In the 113-year history of the Cardinals, only eleven men have been recognized in this manner (number - year retired). They are Ozzie Smith (#1 – 1996), Red Schoendienst (#2 - 1996), Stan Musial (#6 – 1963), Enos Slaughter (#9 – 1996), Ken Boyer (#14 – 1984), Dizzy Dean (#17 – 1974), Lou Brock (#20 – 1979), Bob Gibson (#45 – 1975), August A. Busch (#85 – 1984), Rogers Hornsby (1997) and Jack Buck (2002).

Along with the eleven, trailblazer Jackie Robinson's #42 was retired from every major league roster in 1997. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking of the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

All of these players are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame except for Boyer, whose selection has long been long overdue. But, that is a subject for another day.

Yet, there are several dozen former Cardinals players and managers who are members of the Hall, but whose numbers were never recognized via retirement by the team.

Posters in a recent discussion thread on our excellent message board posed the question of whether ex-Cardinal greats Frankie Frisch, Jim Bottomley, Johnny Mize and Ducky Medwick were deserving of having their numbers retired and after analysis, wondering why they were never enshrined.

The former question is a debate that could remain unresolved forever, but the latter could easily be answered. Or, so I thought.

Long ago, all four received a higher recognition than the Cardinals could offer, as each has a plaque in Cooperstown. Frisch was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947, Medwick in 1968, Bottomley in 1974 and Mize joined them in 1981.

While none was a career Cardinal, each of these men put up some very impressive accomplishments while wearing the birds on the bat and played a majority of their careers with the team. Oddly, they were good enough for Cooperstown, but not good enough for the ‘Lou.

I joined those who wondered why.

So, I started with Cardinals Historian Erv Fischer, who has been around the team for over 70 years. A native St. Louisan and member of the Cardinals Knot Hole Gang in 1934, Erv is also the co-founder of the St. Louis Society for American Baseball Research, SABR, "The Bob Broeg Chapter".

Surely, he'd know.

Not so. Erv's reply was delivered in its usual down-to-business, straight-forward manner. "This has always been a total mystery as to who makes these decisions on retired numbers and choices for any further statues", said Fischer.

However, Erv didn't leave me high and dry. He directed me to Paula Homan, Curator of the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Initially, she didn't have the answer, either, but offered to look into it and get back to me.

Homan did. However, the process remains as mysterious and murky as when I started. She began by stating what seemed so obvious already. "There is no real timeframe on who is considered and when. Any decisions must be approved by the team ownership."

Homan stated that she has been "reminded that there comes a point when there would be no numbers left for current players, without truly careful and judicious awarding of retired numbers."

That particular argument especially wears thin when realizing that many of these former greats played prior to numbers appearing on uniforms. That clearly wasn't an issue for Hornsby, since he received the recognition despite not wearing a number. Apparently, that fact is lost on the current administration.

It is sad to me that the players of the past are not receiving full recognition because of fear of using up numbers that wouldn't have to be retired, anyway. It is about remembering the men and their accomplishments, not their uniform numbers.

However, the team isn't totally oblivious to the rich history of the franchise. Said Homan, "Our museum will be re-inventing itself once the new ballpark is open, and part of the plans include a true Cardinals Hall of Fame, in which there would be inductions of players that are significant to the team history, as well as by their achievements."

While not in phase one of the new Busch, Homan spoke of their plans with relative certainly. "This is a few years down the road, but definitely in the planning", she said.

Plans for the new park include moving if the statues, currently on the north side of the stadium, that honor every former Cardinal Hall of Famer. They will be relocated to Ballpark Village, a new plaza connecting Clark Street and the stadium. The retired numbers are shown in stadium renderings at the base of the scoreboard in front of the Scoreboard Patio section.

"The statues that have been created also have typically been retired number players and Hall of Fame players, including the two players representing the A.L. Browns and the N.N.L. Stars. In the future, there could be more statues if deemed appropriate. This is my speculation, as there is none planned at this time", said Homan.

I hope she's right in that the best way to be assured of getting new statues is by having more former Cardinals elected to the Hall.

In closing, Homan made it clear that history will remain as much a part of the Cardinal DNA in the new Busch as in the old. "There will continue to be ways to honor former players who have contributed significantly to the team and the game."

I can think of at least four guys who surely seem to be deserving.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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