06/18/2003 9:15 PM ET
Gehrig's #4 was first retired number
In 1929, the New York Yankees became the first baseball team to make numbers a permanent fixture on the backs of their uniforms. Therefore, it was only appropriate that the Bronx Bombers would be the team that began the practice of retiring the numbers of their finest players.
By Tim Ott / MLB.com
But although Babe Ruth is considered to be the greatest and most popular Yankee of all time, it wasn't the Bambino's No. 3 that first found its way into retirement. That honor instead went to Ruth's quiet yet still-spectacular slugging partner, Lou Gehrig.
The Yanks retired the Iron Horse's No. 4 on July 4, 1939, during the now famous "Lou Gehrig Day." Interestingly enough, Gehrig remains the only player in Yankee history to have ever worn the No. 4 on the back of his uniform. Naturally, that's because his number was retired a mere two months after his final game. Ruth, who was forced to wait 13+ years between his final game for the Bombers and his own Appreciation Day (which took place on June 13, 1948), had to share his beloved No. 3 with nine other Yankees before it was retired.
In between, the New York Giants jumped on the number-retirement bandwagon. They made left-handed wizard Carl Hubbell -- who victimized Ruth and Gehrig in his streak of five consecutive strikeouts during the 1934 All-Star Game -- the second player in baseball history to have his number retired when they stopped handing out his No. 11 in 1944. Five years later they endowed the same honor upon slugger Mel Ott, making his No. 4 the fourth digit to be retired in baseball history.
The first team outside New York to get in on the act was the Pittsburgh Pirates, an organization with a rich history and a roster of stars that rivaled even the Yankees in the first half of the 20th Century. But it wasn't a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Paul Waner who had his No. 1 retired by the club in 1954. That honor instead went to a gentleman by the name of Billy Meyer, a manager who had his greatest success on the minor league level. Wagner, who was given the No. 33 during his coaching days (his career ended before 1929), didn't have his number retired for another two years.
Gradually, most other organizations began to catch on to the trend. Bob Feller's No. 19 was retired by the Cleveland Indians in 1957, and the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies followed suit by nixing the digits of Ted Williams (9) and Robin Roberts (36) in subsequent years. Before long, virtually every great player who had played with a number on his back could see it posted on the outfield or stadium wall of his former team.
Today, 26 of the 30 Major League clubs have the number of a former player, coach or executive retired for good (not counting Jackie Robinson's No. 42, which is off-limits for everybody). It has become a standard for recognizing the success of an organizational great, a player who carries the legacy of excellence during his glory days with the team. Perhaps then, it is only fitting that started with Lou Gehrig -- a player who embodied the definition of pride more than any other.
Tim Ott is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.