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Enough Already with ‘Conceptual’ Retired Numbers
Why do teams insist on retiring numbers that nobody even wore?
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You may think there’s no way for a brand-new sports franchise to have a retired number. The Seattle Kraken, however, disagree.
The Kraken, of course, began play this month as the NHL’s newest team. After playing their first five games on the road, they finally had their first regular season home game last Saturday, Oct. 23. And during the pregame festivities, there was a surprise announcement: The team was retiring No. 32.
Why that number? Because the Kraken are the NHL’s 32nd team, and because they reportedly received 32,000 season ticket deposits in a single day back in 2018, thus proving the Seattle market’s viability to NHL execs.
This is the latest example of what I call a “conceptual number retirement” (CNR). While traditional number retirements honor a player — or in baseball, sometimes a manager, since they also wear numbers — CNRs are about retiring a number that the honoree never wore, and that in some cases nobody ever wore. It’s all pretty silly, but that didn’t stop the Kraken from raising a big “32” banner to the rafters on Saturday:
This move by the Kraken captures a lot of what I dislike about CNRs. First, there’s the willful attempt to come up with a “storytelling” narrative. Then there’s the wholesale inversion of what number retirements are supposed to represent. Think about it: When a team retires a number for a player, it’s a generous-spirited gesture from an employer toward an employee, directing love and attention toward that player. But by retiring No. 32, the Kraken are essentially directing love and attention toward themselves. It all feels somewhere between self-indulgent and masturbatory.
It could be worse, though. Imagine the level of chutzpah that must be required for a team owner to preside over a number retirement for himself. That’s happened several times over the years, along with lots of other CNRs that seem dubious at best. Here’s a league-by-league rundown that I’ve compiled:
Several MLB teams, including the Cardinals, Giants, and Phillies, have “retired” a non-number or “no number” for notable players whose careers predated the advent of uni numbers. I suppose you could call these CNRs, but they retain the spirit of traditional number retirements, so I’m not going to include them on this list. Here are MLB’s real CNRs:
Angels: No. 26, for owner Gene Autry (the idea being that he was the “26th man,” back when MLB rosters had 25 players).
Brewers: No. 1, for owner Bed Selig.
Cardinals: No. 85, for owner Gussie Busch (who was 85 years old when the number was retired for him).
Cleveland: From June 12, 1995 through April 4, 2001, Cleveland had a remarkable streak of 455 consecutive sold-out games. After the streak was finally broken, the team retired No. 455. (Good thing, because otherwise someone might have worn it, right?)
Marlins: When the Marlins came into existence in 1993, they retired No. 5 as a memorial gesture for team exec Carl Barger, who died before the team played its first game. Why No. 5? Because Barger’s favorite player was Joe DiMaggio. (According to this page, in 2012 “the Marlins agreed to unretire No. 5 and allow Logan Morrison to wear it. Morrison did so as a tribute to his father, Tom, who passed away in 2010 after battling lung cancer, and who idolized another famous No. 5 — George Brett.”)
Most NFL teams have a “ring of honor,” which is where owners, coaches, and other non-players are typically enshrined. As a result, the league is mostly free of CNRs. In fact, there’s only one that I’m aware of:
Seahawks: No. 12, for the fans — i.e., the “12th man.” (As if to underscore the absurdity of this CNR, the Seahawks actually pay royalties to Texas A&M University, which has trademarked the term “12th man.”)
The NBA has a lot of CNRs. Many are for coaches, but there are a few other oddities in the mix as well:
Celtics: No. 1 (for team owner/founder Walter A. Brown) and No. 2 (for coach Red Auerbach).
Hawks: No. 59, for Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed (who was the city’s 59th mayor at the time the number was retired).
Heat: No. 23, for Michael Jordan (who never played for the Heat). It’s also worth mentioning that the Heat retired former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino’s No. 13 jersey in 2005. It’s not clear how an NBA team can “retire” an NFL player’s jersey, or what that even means, but whatever — they only retired Marino’s jersey, not his number, so No. 13 is still available for Heat players (and is currently worn by center Bam Adebayo.)
Kings: No. 6, for the “sixth man.”
Jazz: No. 1 (for coach Frank Layden), No. 9 (for owner Larry Miller), and No. 1223 (for coach Jerry Sloan and his 1,223 victories).
Knicks: No. 613, for coach Red Holzman (who led the team to 613 victories).
Magic: No. 6, for the “sixth man.” (The number was briefly unretired during the 2001-02 season for player Patrick Ewing, whose usual No. 33 was being worn by Grant Hill at the time.)
Nuggets: No. 432, for coach Doug Moe (who had 432 coaching victories).
Pacers: No. 529, for coach Bobby Leonard (who had 529 coaching victories with the team).
Pistons: No. 2, for coach Chuck Daly, representing his two NBA championships. (The number was unretired this season.)
Trail Blazers: No. 77, for coach Jack Ramsay, who coached the team to the NBA championship in 1977. (In addition, most lists indicate that the Blazers have retired No. 1 for original team owner Larry Weinberg, but that number is still available for players — it’s currently worn by shooting guard Anfernee Simons — and is not included among the banners hung from the rafters of the team’s arena. Think of it as a soft CNR.)
Aside from the Kraken, several other NHL teams have CNRs. Here’s the breakdown:
Golden Knights: No. 58, in memory of the 58 people killed in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting.
Panthers: No. 37, for former owner Wayne Huizenga (who was born in 1937), and No. 93, for team executive Bill Torrey (because the team was founded in 1993).
Wild: No. 1, for the team’s fans. (Much like the Kraken’s recent move, this one was done at the team’s inaugural home game.)
That's the full rundown for the major pro leagues, at least as far as I could tell after combing through the various retired number lists. (Did I miss any CNRs? If so, please feel free to post them in the comments.)
As for the Kraken, sure, I get it — all those other teams have banners up in the rafters, so the Kraken want to get in on that too. But retiring a number because you’re the league’s latest franchise? Come on, man — that is literally a participation trophy.
Look, here’s how it works: Play for a few years, develop a few good players, build a history and heritage, and then you’ll be able to retire a few numbers the honest way. Yes, that takes a bit longer (just like most worthwhile things in this life), but you and your fans will have a greater sense of well-earned satisfaction in the end. And the player you’re honoring won’t be embarrassed by having his banner hanging next to a bogus CNR banner.
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.