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What Does it Take for a Manager to get Their Number Retired? A Study

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Looking at the managers in baseball history with retired numbers, and what it took to get there

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this season, manager A.J. Hinch moved into the Astros’ franchise top three in all-time wins with the team, passing Art Howe with his 393rd win in Houston. Inspired by that, I wondered if Hinch is the best manager in Astros history. Looking into it and asking around, the answer was… a pretty resounding yes. After moving into third place already this year, he’s already four wins shy of tying Larry Dierker (435) for second place. Barring anything unforeseen, he should pass Bill Virdon’s 544 wins sometime next year. And of course, no other Astros manager has won a World Series, only one other one has a pennant (Phil Garner in 2005), only Virdon has managed the team for more seasons (8 to 5), and the only manager with a winning percentage higher than his .583 mark is Salty Parker, who went undefeated in one game in 1972 in between Harry Walker and Hall of Famer Leo Durocher (who I hadn’t even realized managed the Astros for just under 200 games).

So, uh… yeah. Glad I could answer that question. But I wanted to dig into the topic a little more. So, in typical me fashion, I decided to look at it from the perspective of retired numbers: which current managers have a shot at getting their numbers retired by a team? (It may not seem like it, but this is probably a more interesting question than making the Hall of Fame, to be honest, since the standards are more ambiguous.)

That of course brings up the question of “what does it take to get your number retired as a manager?” The easiest thing to do would be to look at managers who already have their numbers retired, but that can be something of a difficult question given the number of people with a retired number who served as both a player and a manager. Would players like Dierker (#49) or Red Schoendienst (#2, Cardinals) have gotten their numbers retired if they didn’t also have notable playing careers with their teams? Or even further, is their honor entirely due to their playing days, with managerial achievements serving just as icing on the cake? And this isn’t even getting into old-time player-managers where the two components are even more intertwined, like Bill Terry (#3, Giants).

You kind of have to play it by ear a little bit, but there are some trends you start to notice:

1) Win multiple World Series titles.

This is the surest route. 23 managers have won more than one World Series, and 9 of them have gotten their number retired.* Which doesn’t sound great, until you consider all the complicating factors. Two manages on that list are still active (Bruce Bochy and Terry Francona, both of whom have pretty compelling cases). A number of other notable ones never wore uniform numbers, including Joe McCarthy (most World Series wins as a manager) and Connie Mack (most wins). That accounts for another six managers. Now to be fair, John McGraw never wore a number either, and that didn’t stop the Giants from adding him to their retired number section, but the Giants are not the norm in that regard.

* That list includes: Casey Stengel (#37, Yankees and Mets), Walter Alston (#24, Dodgers), Joe Torre (#6, Yankees), Sparky Anderson (#10, Reds; #11, Tigers), Tony La Russa (#10, Cardinals), Tom Kelly (#10, Twins), Tom Lasorda (#2, Dodgers), Danny Murtaugh (#40, Pirates), and John McGraw (see above). All of them won multiple World Series with those teams specifically except for Stengel and the Mets, and Anderson and the Tigers, but we’ll come back to that.

The remaining six managers are interesting exceptions to use as case studies:

-Cito Gaston had two titles for Toronto and was added to their Level of Excellence, which seemed like their version of retired numbers until they suddenly retired Roberto Alomar’s #12 in 2011. Who knows if they honor him again one day, but he’s far and away their most successful manager.

-Bucky Harris’s biggest success came with the Washington Senators (their only World Series, two of their three pennants, eighteen seasons total), who no longer exist. His other World Series title came with the 1947 Yankees, but he only helmed them one other season before new ownership decided to replace him with Casey Stengel, and it’s gonna take a lot more than one title in two seasons to stand out among Yankees managers.

-Ralph Houk had quick success as the Yankees’ manager, winning the 1961 and ‘62 World Series as well as the 1963 pennant, but then moved into the front office. He returned to a second, longer managerial stint with them to much less success (only finishing above fourth place once in eight seasons) before becoming the first of many managers to leave under the new Steinbrenner administration (and his nine years after that with Detroit and Boston, which saw him finish with a losing record, did little to remind anyone of those early titles).

-Bill McKechnie’s success was spread out: he won one World Series with the Pirates (1925), one pennant with the Cardinals (1928), and a Series and another pennant with the Reds (1939-40). Cincinnati might make sense as an option, except that his #1 was later retired in honor of a different manager (Fred Hutchinson, who’s successful stint was brought to an early end by cancer).

-Billy Southworth was the manager of the Cardinals during their early 1940s dynasty, winning three straight pennants and the ‘42 and ‘44 World Series. He left after his seventh season with the team for the Boston Braves, where he was okay (1 pennant and a still-winning record over six years), but his reputation was probably hurt by the fact that the team continued fine without him, winning the World Series again in their first year without him. He was sort of forgotten for a while after that, only getting elected to the Hall relatively recently back in 2008.

-Dick Williams, like Southworth, left a dynasty team mid-run, leaving the A’s after a spat with owner Charlie Finley. In three seasons in Oakland, Williams had three playoff appearances as well as the 1971 and ‘72 World Series, but his successor immediately continued with another title in 1973. Williams also brought pennants to Boston (1967) and San Diego (1984), but never managed anywhere for more than five seasons (his Expos stint was five exactly, but they, again, no longer exist). His overall success got him elected to the Hall, and he did well considering he worked mostly for expansion teams and the Yawkey-owned Red Sox, which put him at a disadvantage. But his spat with Finley, his short overall stint in Oakland, and the team’s immediate success without him all probably hurt his reputation at the place where he was most successful.

So, to try and draw summaries from them: don’t tick off the owner, don’t get shown up by a successor, and make sure that your team is both willing to retire manager numbers and continues to exist. Also, the Yankees seem to be a little stricter than other teams.

2) Win three or more pennants

Pretty similar to the last one, but pennants do seem to factor into consideration of a manager’s skill as well. Earl Weaver (#4, Orioles), Whitey Herzog (#24, Cardinals), Bill Terry, and Bobby Cox (#6, Braves) all seem to fall into this category (although a lot of them have other things about their case as well that we’ll cover on this list). Among managers who wore a uniform number, the only managers with three pennants and no retired number are Charlie Grimm (the last Cub manager to win a pennant until Joe Maddon; naturally, he never won a World Series) and Jim Leyland (who retired pretty recently, so we’ll see how that turns out).

3) Bring your team its first playoff success.

This one overlaps with several other cases, technically. For instance, Bobby Cox was the first manager to win a postseason game for the Braves following their arrival in Atlanta, and Tom Kelly (#10) won the Twins their first and second World Series post-Senators. But it also works without hitting the title or pennant cutoffs; Dick Howser (#10) only won World Series, but it was the Royals’ first one. Ditto Gil Hodges (#14) and the Mets.

But it can even work without a World Series. Larry Dierker won five division titles in six years for the Astros, and Johnny Oates (#26) took the Rangers to their first three postseasons in franchise history. Neither went past the Division Series, but you know, baby steps.

The biggest caveat with this one is that it’s nowhere near as guaranteed as the first two methods, though; see again, for instance, Dick Williams and the Padres. It really just comes down to the franchise’s subjective appraisal.

4) Also playing for the franchise

This is more of a complicating factor, than anything, but a manager’s days as a player can absolutely factor into their number getting retired, so it’s probably worth noting. For instance, as mentioned, Larry Dierker and Red Schoendienst both had the types of careers that could have merited a number retirement independently of their playing days, but successful managerial stints couldn’t have hurt things (in fact, Schoendienst retired the Cardinals’ all-time wins leader, although that came with only one World Series and two pennants). And on the other hand, just because a player with a retired number managed his old team doesn’t mean that’s his managerial career is why he has his number retired; just look at Alan Trammell’s record with the Tigers.

And old-time player-managers can make things even more complicated in deciding which number retirements are for managerial careers versus playing careers. For instance, Lou Boudreau (#5) may or may not have merited a retired number as the last manager to take the Cleveland Indians all the way to the top and all-time win leader, but his playing numbers meant that no one really had to ask that question. And Joe Cronin (#4) is the Red Sox’s all-time wins leader as a manager, but it’s no question that he stood out more as a shortstop than a skipper (just one pennant in thirteen years).

5) Personal story

This is sort of the “everything else” category, since not every one of these retirements fits into one of our neatly-defined categories (although some of them have some overlap with others). Some of these are just due to being intensely beloved by fans; Casey Stengel, for as good as his Yankees run was, had zero success as the first manager of the Mets, and Billy Meyer (#1) helmed some awful Pirates teams. Both still managed to be respected in their cities, and both kept up work with their respective front offices post-retirement.

Being historic for the game can also do it; the Indians retired a number for Frank Robinson (#20) in recognition of him becoming the game’s first black manager when he took over the team in 1975. Tragedies also factor in here. As mentioned earlier, Fred Hutchinson had his stint as the manager of the Reds ended by cancer. Gil Hodges died of a heart attack before starting his fifth season with the Mets. Meyer was still working as a scout for Pittsburgh when he suffered a stroke.

Billy Martin (#1, Yankees) and Hodges also probably benefit from being perennial Hall of Fame cases (I’ve even written about the former’s Hall of Fame case previously). And Martin is also singularly weird in his career; depending on how you want to swing it, you can probably argue for him under the “tragedy rule” (with his alcoholism and self-destructive behavior), the “beloved by the team rule” (there was a reason George Steinbrenner kept bringing him back), or even the “multiple World Series rule” (he won in 1977, and managed the first half of the Yankees’ 1978 season, if you want to give him partial credit?). That’s all interesting to study in retrospect, but I also doubt we’ll be seeing another manager getting a retired number following Martin’s blueprint.

Really, that kind of goes for all of the guys in this category. None of these cases are things you plan out when you start managing, after all. And as for future managers joining these ranks, we’ll probably just have to take a “we’ll know it when we see it” approach.

One thing that I was rather surprised to see not turning up as a common thread? Having the most wins in franchise history. Sure, there is some overlap, but most managers with retired numbers don’t have their franchises’ win record, and a majority of franchises’ win leaders are not immortalized in that way.

Every franchise win leader with their number retired also qualifies under the “2+ World Series”, “3+ Pennants”, or “Player-Manager” rules. The closest thing to an exception is Sparky Anderson, who got his number retired by the Tigers while only winning one of his three championships in Detroit, but he still qualifies on the whole.*

*Two interesting points of comparison here:

First, Tony La Russa has more wins in Oakland than any other manager, as well as making the World Series and Pennant cutoff for his entire career. That seems like a good match for Anderson’s case, albeit with an opposite result. Possibly complicating things here is that, while he leads Oakland in wins, he doesn’t lead the Athletics as a whole in wins thanks to Connie Mack’s reign over the Philadelphia A’s, so his status as “team win leader” is a lot more debatable and possibly why they haven’t honored him.

Second, Whitey Herzog led the Royals in wins at the point of his retirement, but hasn’t had his number retired in Kansas City even though it is in St. Louis (where he trails La Russa). Unlike La Russa and Anderson, though, Herzog only managed a single pennant in KC, and his sole title came later with the Cardinals. And of course, his successor won a World Series, and he’s no longer the team win leader. So once again, he’s an imperfect match for Anderson. Maybe being the franchise wins leader is the deciding factor here for Anderson, but if it is, he’s fairly singular in that regard.

Meanwhile, on the side of team win leaders without a retired number, the aforementioned Cito Gaston remains a bizarre exception. But even franchise win leaders who have only won a single World Series seem to be out of luck. Mike Scioscia (Angels), Charlie Manuel (Phillies), Davey Johnson (Mets), and Jack McKeon (Marlins) are all similarly snubbed. Granted, I have a feeling that some of those might change over time (especially since many of them have only recently left those teams or retired from the game), but for now, they’re all out in the cold.

Weirdly, the closest one to number retirement from this group (outside of the confusing case of Gaston) is probably Lou Piniella, who never even took the Mariners to a World Series yet has seen his old uniform withheld from circulation by the team since he left all the same (although an official retirement still hasn’t happened).