By Paul Semendinger
May 30, 2022
Editor’s Note - This article was first published on July 26, 2017.
Todd Frazier, a former All-Star, who wears number 21 becomes a Yankee. He gets issued his Yankee uniform and he gets… number 29.
The Yankees seem to have great difficulty issuing #21 to any player – ever since Paul O’Neill retired in 2001. Two players (LaTroy Hawins and Morgan Ensburg) were briefly issued the number (both in 2008) before controversy or outrage (or both) caused them or the Yankees to change their numbers.
Will this ever stop?
Will the Yankees retire the number in honor of Paul O'Neill? Will they ever issue it to another player?
Can the Yankees make a decision on uniform number 21… please?
Before getting to the main content of this piece, I need to begin with a few very clear statements.
1. Paul O’Neill was a great Yankee.
2. I loved watching Paul O’Neill play for the Yankees. He was one of my favorite players.
3. Paul O’Neill was one of the key acquisitions that helped form the core of the late 1990’s Yankees teams that won those wonderful championships.
4. Those great Yankees teams would not have been as successful without Paul O’Neill.
5. I don’t blame any of this on Paul O’Neill.
6. Paul O’Neill was a great Yankee. (It bears repeating.)
Now that we have all of that out of the way, I am tired of the manufactured controversy regarding O’Neill’s #21 and this seemingly inability for any player going forward to earn that uniform number.
As mentioned above, last week the Yankees acquired Todd Frazier, a former All-Star, a local New Jersey kid, and a person who grew-up rooting for Paul O’Neill. Todd Frazier has worn uniform #21 throughout his entire career. When he was acquired, Todd Frazier made some comments that seemed to indicate that he’d like to wear #21 as a Yankee, but for whatever reason, he backed-off those comments and is now wearing #29.
I don’t understand this. If the Yankees wish to retire Paul O’Neill’s uniform number, they have every right to do so. (He was great!) But they haven’t retired the number and, at the same time, they refuse to issue it. I’m trying to understand why Paul O’Neill’s number is so unique that it can't be officially retired, but it also can’t be worn by any current player.
Is this going to be the case going forward…forever? Is #21 going to be in limbo for all eternity? Does Paul O’Neill (as a great Yankee as he was) deserve this honor? And, can we please settle this once and for all?
I figured I would examine the possible reasons for holding off on issuing #21 and see if Paul O’Neill’s case is unique in Yankees history. If so, that would at least a give reason why they haven’t issued the number…
GAMES PLAYED AS A YANKEE:
In order to have one’s uniform number retired, he would have to play for a team for a significant period. In that regard, it makes sense to look at the Yankees All-Time Leaders in Games Played.
One could assume that the leaders on the list all have their numbers retired. Is Paul O’Neill one of the all-time Yankees in games played?
Currently, Paul O’Neill ranks 29th on the Yankees all-time list of games played with 1,254. He played for the Yankees for 9 seasons. Of the players who played in more games than O’Neill, the following do not have their numbers retired:
7th All-Time - Roy White (uniform #6)
12th All-Time – Willie Randolph (uniform #30)
13th All-Time – Frank Crosetti (uniform #’s 1, 2, 5)
15th All-Time – Tony Lazzeri (uniform #’s 5, 6, 7, 23) (Hall-of-Famer)
16th All-Time – Graig Nettles (uniform #9)
17th All-Time – Alex Rodriguez (uniform #13)
19th All-Time – Wally Pipp (ok, they didn’t have uniform numbers when Wally played)
20th All-Time – Earle Combs (uniform #1) (Hall-of-Famer)
22nd All-Time – Bobby Richardson (he mostly wore #1)
23rd All-Time – Hank Bauer (he mostly wore #9)
25th All-Time – Gil McDougald (uniform #12)
26th All-Time – Bob Meusel (uniform #5)
27th All-Time – Tommy Henrich (uniform #’s 7, 15, 17, 22)
28th All-Time – Bobby Murcer (he mostly wore #1 his first time as a Yankee, #2 thereafter)
And, just for fun… they player who ranks immediately behind Paul O’Neill on the All-Time Yankees game lists is:
30th All-Time – Horace Clarke (1,230 games played, just 24 fewer games than Paul O’Neill.)
The big question that must be asked, if none of those players has their numbers retired, and their numbers were issued after they played, what makes Paul O’Neill so different?
One might argue that Paul O’Neill was special because he was a contributing outfielder on a number of New York Yankees World Series Championship Teams.
Let’s compare just the players above in that regard:
The data seems to indicate that just from the games played list, there were plenty of other New York Yankees outfielders who played on numerous championship teams that also never had their number retired.
Maybe it’s because Paul O’Neill was an all-star numerous times.
Lets’ compare the players from the list:
Paul O’Neill was an American League All-Star five times.
The following players from the list were also New York Yankee All-Stars five times: Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, and Tommy Henrich.
But it can’t be all-star game appearances because Gil McDougald (6), Alex Rodriguez (7), and Bobby Richardson (8) all played in more All-Star games than Paul O’Neill.
Also, to also be fair, the All-Star game was not played in the days of Wally Pipp and Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri had one All-Star appearance at the end of his career.
It must also be noted that Combs and Lazzeri were more than All-Stars, they are members of the Hall-of-Fame.
LEAGUE LEADER/AWARD WINNER/HONORS:
It must be because Paul O’Neill led the American League in some offensive categories. A perpetual league leader might need his number retired.
But, Paul O’Neill led the American League in batting…only once.
He never led the league in any other major category.
For comparison, Graig Nettles led the league in home runs once and won two Gold Gloves. He was also won the 1981 American League Championship Series MVP award and was one of the few players to be Captain of the Yankees.
Willie Randolph won a Silver Slugger Award and was also a Captain of the Yankees.
And, let’s not even get into a comparison with Alex Rodriguez who led the league in numerous categories and won two MVP awards while wearing pinstripes.
Paul O’Neill was a fan favorite. That was true. Everyone seemed to love Paul O’Neill.
Is that a reason to hold his number in limbo? I don’t think so. Just from the list we are working off of, Roy White, Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, and Bobby Murcer, at least among players from the last forty years, were as much fan favorites as Paul O’Neill.
I have to keep saying it, Paul O’Neill was great. I loved him. He was a Yankees legend. He gave his all. He was a winner. But, did he have more “signature moments” than some of these other players?
Tommy Henrich was nicknamed “Old Reliable” because he was instrumental, seemingly always, in big Yankee moments. Current fans may not know about Mickey Owens’ famous dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series, but it was one of baseball’s big moments. Henrich was the batter at the time.
Bobby Richardson won the World Series MVP in 1960 – in a series the Yankees lost. He was that good in the series. Richardson was also one of classiest Yankees ever. He later became a minister and delivered the eulogy at Roger Maris’ and Mickey Mantle’s funerals.
Bobby Murcer also delivered a famous eulogy, for Thurman Munson, and then, seemingly single-handedly won the first game the Yankees played after burying their Captain in 1979.
And, if we want to talk about heroes, Hank Bauer served in the Pacific Theater in World War II earning numerous medals including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart on Guam and he also earned a medal in the Battle of Okinawa.
MEMBER OF A GREAT TEAM:
Paul O’Neill was a member of the 1998 Yankees that set the franchise record for wins. That’s an important factor. O’Neill was also part of three consecutive World Series winners.
Then again, Earle Combs and Bob Meusel were members of the famous Murders Row Yankees of 1927.
Bobby Richardson was a member of the great 1961 Yankees – you know Mantle and Maris and all the home runs?
And Hank Bauer…well, he was once part of the only team in history to win five consecutive World Series (1949-1953).
A YANKEE LEGEND:
Paul O'Neill is a member of Monument Park.
Yet, the following members of Monument Park do not have their numbers retired:
· Lefty Gomez – Hall-of-Fame pitcher. He mostly wore #11 during his career.
· Allie Reynolds. He wore #22 as a Yankee.
· Red Ruffing – Hall-of-Fame pitcher. He mostly wore #15.
· Tino Martinez. A contemporary of O’Neill’s and a member of the same championship teams. Seven players have worn Tino’s #24 since he left.
· Goose Gossage – a Hall-of-Fame pitcher. Ten players have worn Gossage’s #54 since he left the team.
· Willie Randolph
· Mel Stottlemyre – like Randolph, we also wore #30.
Note - After Willie Randolph left the Yankees, 12 different players have worn #30. That being said, #30 remained inactive for 18 years from when Randolph left the team in 1988 until 2006. (Of course, Willie himself was wearing the number many of those years as a coach). Seven players alone have worn #30 just this year.
POST YANKEES CAREER:
Paul O’Neill is a very popular Yankee, even today. He is a member of the announcing team on the YES Network. He does great work. Maybe this is the reason his number has been held out of circulation…
Bobby Murcer, though, was also a very popular and well-respected announcer after his playing days.
And, from the players on the list, Roy White, Willie Randolph, and Graig Nettles all served the big league team as coaches.
And, speaking of coaches, Frank Crosetti served as a coach on the Yankees for 37 years. (Yes, you read that correctly.) People like to talk about Yogi Berra’s ten World Series rings. Crosetti was a player or coach on 17 World Series winners and 23 teams that made it to the World Series – all as a Yankee!
BUT MANY OF THOSE NUMBERS ARE NOW RETIRED!
Over time, many of the numbers the great early Yankees above wore have since been retired for other players. Combs’ #1 was retired for Billy Martin. Bobby Murcer’s #2 eventually went to Derek Jeter. Roy White’s #6 was worn by Joe Torre.
With the numbers out of circulation, the Yankees could add some of these players' names to the retired number list. They did a similar thing when they retired uniform #8 for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey.
Still, among the players above, all who played more games than O’Neill, or who are also recognized in Monument Park, the following numbers are still in circulation:
12, 13, 17, 22, 24, 30, 54
Those numbers seem to get issued all of the time. Why is #21 any different?
Yankee fans love Paul O’Neill. He was great. He was a champion. George Steinbrenner once called him a “warrior” (after the Yankees lost the 1997 playoffs). He was a major contributing player on many great Yankees teams. Paul O’Neill is a Yankee legend.
None of this is Paul O’Neill’s fault (though he could make a statement and say something like, “Todd Frazier can wear #21. I’d be happy if he did!”).
It just seems the Yankees are holding Paul O’Neill and his number to a different standard.
The Yankees refuse to issue the number, but as has been demonstrated here many very worthy Yankees have not had their uniform numbers retired or in limbo like O’Neill’s #21.
The Yankees can end this silly controversy that comes up each time a player considers wearing #21. Retire the number (and in the process consider retiring the numbers for all other equally worthy players) or issue the number once and for all and move on.