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COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#37)

By Paul Semendinger

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#37

I have been looking forward to researching this number.

#37 is famous because it was the number worn by Casey Stengel who, as the Yankees Manager, won pennants in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1960. In his twelve seasons, the Yankees went to ten World Series. The Yankees won seven of those ten World Series.

#37 was retired for Casey Stengel. No one wore it after him.

But who wore it before him?

Who was the greatest player at that number?

The list is short. There were only two players in Yankees history who wore #37 before Stengel:

Herb Karpel and Gus Niarhos.

Herb Karpel played on the Yankees in 1946. He wasn’t a “least among them” Yankee, but he came close. Rather than appearing in just one game as a Yankee, he played in two. And that was the entirety of his Major League Baseball career – two games, both in 1946.

In the two games. Karpel, a pitcher, gave up four hits and two runs in 1.2 innings. And that was that.

Gus Niarhos played in 153 total games as a Yankee, mostly as backup catcher. Niarhos also wore uniform numbers 24 and 38, but here is where it gets a little tricky. In 1946, Niarhos wore #24 and #37. The question is how many games did he play wearing #37?

That’s the important question. Could it be that he only wore it for one game? If so, then little known Herb Karpel just might be the greatest Yankee to ever wear #37 as a player…

After all, they both wore #37 in the same season. Who actually played more games wearing this number?

To determine the answer to this, I did some detective work and tried to draw some conclusions based on the evidence I found.

Karpel seems to have started the season with the Major League club. His two games pitched came on consecutive games, in the Yankees’ fourth and fifth games of the year, on April 19 and April 20.

Niarhos did not get the call to begin his big league career until June 9. One could assume the date when he was issued #24, his first number. I was hoping to find a gap in his record to indicate a time when he might have been sent back down to the minors, but I didn’t see it. I figured if he was sent down, logically when he came back up, he might have had the new number. That seemed reasonable enough. But since I didn’t see a gap, I had to search for a different answer.

I wanted to determine if another player wore #24. That would help my discovery process…

In 1946 there was another player who wore #24. That player was Billy “the Bull” Johnson. Billy had been a Yankee previously, in 1943. That season, he played in 155 games as the Yankees third baseman. Needless to say, he led the league in games played (in those days, the season was 154 games long). Billy wore #7 that first year. He then spent the 1944 and 1945 seasons in military service.

When Johnson returned to the big leagues in 1946, he was issued #24. Johnson’s first game of the season came on May 26. He was playing before Niarhos was playing. The only number Johnson wore that season was #24. If Billy Johnson had #24, Niarhos couldn’t have had that number.

All of this makes me question whether Gus Niarhos ever even wore #24 in a game, and I suspect he did not. It seems that if Billy Johnson was wearing that number, Niarhos probably played in the games wearing #37. And he did!

I found that Niarhos began the 1946 season with the Yankees. This must have been when he was issued #24. He was sent to the minors on May 10, then he was called up a few weeks later and appeared in his first games on June 9.

You read that correctly, his first games, on June 9. The Yankees played a double header that day and he pinch ran in both contests and finished each game as catcher, getting one inning of work in the first game, and two in the second. Niarhos wouldn’t get a chance to bat until a few games later. By the time he appeared in a game, Bill Johnson wore #24. This means that all of Gus Niarhos’ games came while he wore #37.

In that 1946 season, Gus Niarhos appeared in 37 games. He went 9-for-40. He batted just .225. He had no homers and only two runs batted in.

Still, 37 games is a lot more than two. This makes Niarhos the winner.

The greatest Yankees player to ever wear uniform #37 was Gus Niarhos.

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Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.

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