Retiring a player’s jersey number is most often reserved for all-time greats. Other times, it’s a tribute to a player whose career is cut short by illness or death. And sometimes, as in the case of Lou Gehrig — the first professional player to have his number retired — it’s both. Here are 11 numbers that have been retired for a variety of different reasons.
1. #455 – Cleveland Indians
One of the only triple-digit numbers to be retired, the Indians honored their fans with a ceremony on April 22, 2001. From June 12, 1995, to April 2, 2001, the Indians sold out a record 455 consecutive games at Jacobs Field. The Colorado Rockies owned the previous record for most consecutive sellouts with 203. "I believe it's safe to say that this amazing feat of consecutive sellouts will never be matched," Indians owner Larry Dolan said after the streak was snapped in the second game of the 2001 season. "I hope our fans take great pride in setting the standard in major league baseball." Dolan was wrong. This past season, the Boston Red Sox watched their sellout streak at Fenway Park surpass 700 games.
2. #23 – Miami Heat
Despite the fact that he never played for them, the Heat retired Michael Jordan’s No. 23 before his final game in Miami in 2003.
“In honor of your greatness and for all you’ve done for the game of basketball – and not just the NBA, but for all the fans around the world – we want to honor you tonight and hang your jersey, No. 23, from the rafters,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “No one will ever wear No. 23 for the Miami Heat. You’re the best.”
Jordan averaged 30.1 points in 38 career games against the Miami. LeBron James, who previously wore No. 23, announced his plans to switch to No. 6 out of respect for Jordan during what would turn out to be his final year in Cleveland.
3. #5 – Cincinnati Reds
When the Reds honored Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench in 1984, it marked the second time the franchise had retired No. 5. The first time came under much sadder circumstances.
Late in the 1940 season, Cincinnati backup catcher Willard Hershberger, who was forced into action following an injury to Ernie Lombardi, committed suicide. Hershberger, whose father had committed suicide when Willard was 18, blamed himself after the Reds were swept in a double-header, and reportedly expressed his suicidal thoughts to manager Bill McKechnie. The Reds dedicated the rest of the season to the man they called Hershie and defeated the Tigers in the World Series. Hershberger’s No. 5 was temporarily retired, but reactivated in 1942. Bench, a 14-time All-Star, wore it proudly from 1967-1983.
4. #12 – Seattle Seahawks
Quarterback Sam Adkins, a 10th round draft pick out of Wichita State, appeared in 11 games for the Seahawks from 1977-1981. He completed 17-of-39 passes for two touchdowns and four interceptions, and the number he wore is retired along with former teammate Steve Largent’s No. 80 and left tackle Walter Jones’s 71. What gives? In 1984, the team retired No. 12 in honor of its fans (not Adkins) in a ceremony at the Kingdome. The Seahawks have taken great pride in the home-field advantage provided by their 12th Man.
The Seahawks and Texas A&M, which began using the 12th Man slogan in 1922 and trademarked it in 1990, settled a dispute over the use of the slogan in 2006. If the Seahawks use the 12th Man moniker in radio or TV broadcasts, they must mention that the slogan is copyright of Texas A&M.
5. #7 – Washington Capitals
Yvon Labre scored 14 goals in nine NHL seasons, but his No. 7 hangs from the rafters at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. Labre joined the Capitals in their first season, scored the team’s first goal at home, and was captain from 1976-78. Fans and teammates respected Labre’s constant hustle, even as the Capitals struggled through some ugly seasons. He was an assistant coach and color commentator for the team after his retirement and later served as the Capitals’ director of community relations. Labre’s number was retired on Nov. 7, 1981.
6. #1 - Pittsburgh Pirates
Bill Meyer compiled a record of 317-452 during his stint as Pittsburgh manager from 1948-52, and in his final year, the Pirates lost a franchise-worst 112 games. Why then, in 1954, was Meyer the second Pittsburgh player or manager to have his number retired (after the legendary Honus Wagner)?
Meyer’s declining health was well documented and he was a popular figure with the Pittsburgh media and fans. As Baseball Digest’s editors explained in 1990, “He was well liked even though his teams finished 4th, 6th, 8th, 7th, and 8th during his managerial tenure…Meyer’s record as a minor league manager – a highly successful one – also figured in the decision.” Meyer suffered a stroke in 1955 and died in 1957 at the age of 64.
7. #42 – MLB
Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 across the entire league on April 15, 1997, 50 years after Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Players who were wearing the number at the time were allowed to keep it. New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only active player who wears No. 42.
8. #9 – Real Salt Lake
When Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey announced his decision to retire Jason Kreis’s No. 9 earlier this year, controversy erupted. Even Kreis, who scored only 17 of his 108 career goals as an MLS player with Real Salt Lake before taking over as coach, questioned whether he deserved the honor. Internationally, retiring jerseys is rare in soccer, and typically reserved for players who have died. “We live in America,” Lagerwey said at the start of an epic rant defending the decision. “We play in an American soccer league. We have playoffs, we don’t have relegation, we retire numbers.”
9. #7 – New Orleans Hornets
When the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2002, the team retired Pete Maravich’s No. 7. The Utah Jazz, for whom Maravich played the majority of his career, had previously retired Pistol Pete’s number. All but one of Maravich’s years with the Jazz came before the team moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. That, coupled with Maravich’s tremendous college career at LSU, was the Hornets’ reasoning for retiring his number. The team’s only other retired number is 13, which belonged to Bobby Phills. The Baton Rouge native died in a car crash in 2000.
10. #99 – NHL
After Wayne Gretzky played his final game on April 18, 1999, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that his iconic No. 99 would be retired across the league. “You have always been and always will be ‘The Great One,’” Bettman said. “There will never be another.”
11. #40 – Arizona Cardinals
Pat Tillman starred as a linebacker at Arizona State and was selected in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He converted to safety and, in 2000, set a new team record for tackles. Following the 2001 season, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract offer to enlist in the Army with his brother, Kevin. Tillman became the first NFL player to die in combat since the Vietnam War when he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004. The Cardinals retired Tillman’s No. 40 in a ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium later that year.