COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#29)
By Paul Semendinger
It's funny the way uniform numbers are. When we see a number, we often automatically think of a player. The player we think about might not be the best player, or the most famous, he's just a guy who sticks in our memory with that uniform number.
When I see #29, I first think of Jesse Barfield.
I remember when the Yankees acquired Barfield. I was both excited and angry. The Yankees traded Al Leiter to get Jesse Barfield. I had been hoping that Al Leiter would be the next great Yankees left-handed starter. I felt they gave up on him too quickly. But Jesse Barfield was a great outfielder with a rocket for an arm who could hit for power. He was a star. I had such high hopes that he would also be a great Yankees. In his three full years as a Yankee, Barfield hit 18, 25, and 17 homers. He never hit even .250. He was good, not great. I liked Jesse Barfield, but he was never the star I hoped he'd be.
In the history of the Yankees, an amazing 62 different players have worn #29.
Most recently, #29 was worn by Gio Urshela.
The Yankees who wore #29 for more than just a season or two were:
Charlie Silvera (1949-56)
Catfish Hunter (1975-79)
Bob Shirley (1983-87)
Jesse Barfield (1989-92)
Gerald Williams (1994-96)
Mike Stanton (1997-2002, 2005)
Francisco Cervelli (2009-14)
Gio Urshela (2019-21)
Normally for this exercise, I look closely at each possible candidate to try to determine who was the best. That exercise does not need to taken this time.
The winner here is clear. It's not in question. Even if there was a player who earned more WAR in pinstripes at #29, the best Yankee to ever wear the number was Catfish Hunter.
Catfish Hunter was more than just a great pitcher for the Yankees. He was a symbol that the Yankees were back and going for it. When the Yankees signed Catfish Hunter as a free agent before the 1975 season, they were announcing to the world that the years of losing were over and that soon they would be champions again.
Catfish arrived in New York and won 23 games in 1975, his first year. The next year, 1976, the Yankees were in the World Series. In 1977 and 1978, they would be World Series champs.
Catfish Hunter was never the same great pitcher he had been with the A's (and the Yankees in 1975) after his 1975 season, winning 17, 9, and then 12 games over his final three full seasons as a Yankee, but his presence in the rotation and on the team brought with it a winning attitude. In fact, one reason the Yankees were able to catch the Red Sox in that remarkable 1978 season was because Catfish Hunter was outstanding down the stretch that year. In that season's second half, he went 10-3. 2.88. Guidry was the Yankees' star pitcher in 1978, but Catfish Hunter's second half wasn't that much behind.
In 1987, Catfish Hunter was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I know, readers want to know how these players rank by WAR.
Here they are:
Catfish Hunter and Jesse Barfield 9.9
Mike Stanton 8.8
Gio Urshela 6.4
Bob Shirley and Francisco Cervelli 4.3
Charlie Silvera 1.4
Gerald Williams 1.4
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.