JACKIE NOT THE FIRST:
The MLB tribute this past April 15th in honor of civil rights pioneer/Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson was one-of-a-kind in its nature and scope, and was well-deserved. It was NOT, however, the first time a retired uniform number in a major sports league suddenly became “unretired”. Let The Shirt regale the tales of unretired and conditionally retired uniform numbers in recent years.
The end of the 1990-91 NBA season was the last hurrah, at least for a time, of the career of Lakers legend Magic Johnson. Diagnosed with the HIV virus, Johnson was steered into retirement by the diagnosis, though he was far from forgotten.
During the 1991-92 preseason, 76ers star Charles Barkley looked into changing his number for that season from 34 to Johnson’s 32 as a tribute to the all-time great. One hurdle remained, however: the Sixers had already retired #32, not for Johnson, but for Billy Cunningham, a forward who spent nine of his 11 pro hoops seasons with Philadelphia. Fortunately, tracking down Cunningham wasn’t difficult, as he was working in the 76ers’ front office at the time. Equally fortunate: Cunningham graciously allowed his Sixers #32 to be brought out of mothballs for one season to allow Barkley to carry out his tribute.
Turn the clock forward to April 15, 1997. With the league-wide retirement of Robinson’s #42 having been recently announced, Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr., the guy who got the ball rolling on the 2007 Robinson tribute, wore a #42 Mariners road jersey at Cleveland. He had 2 singles, 2 runs scored and a run batted in as the M’s thumped the Tribe 8-4.
Move ahead again to 2004. Jerry Rice, having been let go by the Raiders, signed on with the Seattle Seahawks for the final 11 games of his career. Rice’s glory days in San Francisco found him associated with jersey number 80…oops! The Seahawks had retired #80 in honor of Steve Largent, a Hall of Fame wide receiver only marginally less heralded than Rice himself, and who was a fixture in the Seattle offense for the team’s first 14 seasons of existence. Then in Congress, Largent, like Cunningham before him, gave Rice the go-ahead to wear “his” #80 for the duration of his time with the Seahawks.
Conditional number retirements have also existed. The grandfather clause on the 1997 decree regarding Robinson’s #42 finds one player still legally grandfathered to wear the number all year…Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. A few years earlier in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls retired #10 in honor of 1970s team star Bob Love. At the time (during the Bulls’ first Three-Peat), guard B.J. Armstrong was wearing the number 10 jersey, and a deal was worked out that B.J. could keep #10 until he left the Bulls, making him the last #10 in the annals of the red and black.
Even as far back as the late 1970s, the Dodgers, after retiring the #19 of the late Jim Gilliam, allowed for the possibility of unretiring Junior’s number if and when his son made the Dodgers’ roster…which, of course, never happened.
Then, there are times when the request to unretire a number falls on deaf ears, as was the case with the younger Griffey. Slumping early on after joining the Reds, Griffey beseeched Hall of Famer Tony Perez, for whom the Reds had retired #24, to allow him to wear it. Perez declined, pointing out that, when he joined Boston in 1980, he respected the incumbent #24 (Dwight Evans) enough to not make the number an issue, and wore #5 instead, telling The Kid to follow his example.
Will any of the Big Three leagues allow for a number unretirement again any time soon? We’ll see.