With 22 numbers now retired (and many more likely coming), it may be time to consider a way to "unretire" the numbers.
Retired Numbers in Sports:
Across the entire MLB, there are 211 numbers (counting Jackie Robinson once) retired for players/managers/coaches who had numbers they wore during their career. This includes both numbers for those that are jointly retired by teams (like the Yankees #8 for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey). There are an additional 21 numbers retired across the league for people who didn't have numbers, executives, and the retirement of the number 455 for "the fans" in Cleveland.
The Yankees alone have retired 22 numbers, or over 10% of the uniform retirements across the entire league.
If we look at the other professional sports outside of baseball, the most uniform numbers retired by team are:
NFL - Chicago Bears: 14 retired numbers
NHL - Toronto Maple Leafs: 19 retired numbers
NBA - Boston Celtics: 23 retired numbers
In the NFL, each team carries an active roster of 53 players.
In the NHL, each team carries an active roster of 23 players.
In the NBA, each team carries an active roster of 15 players.
While it is not unprecedented to see some teams retire large amounts of numbers in each league, it is telling one two ends that the Yankees have such a large amount in their own sport. The next closest team- the St. Louis Cardinals- have retired just 13 numbers in their history (not counting 2 non-number retirements). The fact that the Yankees have an astounding 22 means they have a great history (they do) and that they've been getting carried away (they have been) with who to honor.
Regardless, I think the Yankees should look to the college football model for how to get this rate under control. There are a few different schools of thought here:
The Florida Model:
The University of Florida Gators football program has retired 4 numbers in their history. They have also unretired 4 numbers in their history.
Thus, the Florida Model is very simple: Retire the number and then bring the number back to circulation in the following years.
To date, none of the 4 numbers they have retired have become retired twice (as to say it was retired, revived, and then retired again), though while Tim Tebow's number 15 was retired at one point in the programs history, there is still a good chance when watching the Gators play that you will find a #15 somewhere on the field or sidelines during gameday.
For the Yankees, this seems like the most extreme model and something that would not go over well at all. From me too, just so we are clear.
Babe Ruth's number should never be worn again. Second that for Lou Gehrig. Third it for Mickey Mantle. Fourth it for Joe DiMaggio. Fifth and Sixth it for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. (I could continue for a little bit on this, but I wont.)
This would be the nuclear option of bringing down the number of retired numbers. It is an idea, but something that I don't believe fans, the front office, and obviously not the players would agree to/like to happen.
The Kentucky Model:
The University of Kentucky Wildcats football program has retired 34 numbers in their history. They have never unretired a number. However, the numbers are still available to be worn by players.
While I think they as a program have misunderstood what the word retired means, this is another model for "retiring" numbers: Retire the number without retiring it.
There have been 5 numbers in Wildcats history that have been retired at least twice, with the number 80 having been retired 3 separate times.
For the Yankees, this would be an interesting option where the player gets to keep the honor of being retired without hindering the active players ability to pick numbers they may otherwise want. Again, I don't know if I am the biggest fan of this idea.
Ultimately, this feels to be a more "dressed up" version of the nuclear option. It feels more important, yet the end product is still the same thing.
Maybe, an interesting idea- if this model were to be used- would be including a patch with the name of the retired player on the uniform sleeve of any player willing to wear the available but retired number. Think of seeing a Yankees second baseman wearing #10 on the field while on the right sleeve they would also have the name "Phil Rizzuto" emblazoned on the uniform.
I like my take on the idea more than just reissuing the numbers, but it could still be improved.
The Ole Miss Model (And Alliterative Texas A&M/LSU Models):
The University of Mississippi Bulldogs football program has retired 3 numbers in their history. Two of those numbers are not currently available for reissue, yet the third number is worn. This is the number 38, which is awarded to a defensive senior each year who wins the Chucky Mullins Courage Award (named after the player whose number 38 was/is retired).
The Ole Miss model seems to be a nice in-between option: retire the number for some, for others make it possible for players to wear the number as an honor.
LSU has done a similar thing by assigning value to their number 18, giving it to a player who exemplifies good and proper conduct both on and off the field. Texas A&M does a similar thing by reserving the number 12 for a player who walks on each year.
These models are interesting.
For the Yankees, I believe, this would actually open the team up to a variety of very interesting ideas.
Take a player like Paul O'Neill. For him, make the Paul O'Neill "Warrior Award" for a player who demonstrated his spirit for the sport. (Ultimately, this would go to the player who beat up the most water coolers each season.) Allow the player who won the award to have the option to wear his number 21 going forward. Once that player leaves the Yankees, then the award and uniform number could be issued again to a player that meets the "Warrior Award" ideals.
Continue this for a variety of the less-that-elite retired numbered players (i.e. Roger Maris, Jorge Posada, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, Phil Rizzuto, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams). This allows them to keep the honor of being a player with a retired number- when not in issue from a player who earned the honor- while also opening up the uniforms to be worn again.
Ultimately, I think this would be a great way to work the P.R. in favor of the Yankees if they were to decide to go this route (they never will) to unretire numbers.