Friday August 11, 2017
The Curious Case of Cliff Mapes, the Greatest Numbers-Wearer in Baseball History
Cliff Mapes (third from left) flanked by three future Hall of Famers: DiMaggio, Mize and Berra.
When you talk about retired numbers in baseball, you have to talk about Cliff Mapes.
Now if you‘re a non-baseball fan, you’re probably going: Cliff Who? But if you‘re a baseball fan, you’re probably going: Wait. Cliff ... Who?
From 1948 to 1952, Cliff Mapes was an outfielder for three teams in the American League: the New York Yankees, St. Louis Browns and Detroit Tigers. For his career, he appeared in 459 games, slugged 38 homeruns, and retired with the following BA/OBP/SLG line: .242/.338/.406. Not exactly Hall of Fame stats. So if we‘re talking retired numbers, why do we have to talk about Cliff Mapes?
Because Mapes wore three of the most iconic retired numbers in baseball history.
Reminder: MLB players didn’t begin wearing numbers until 1929, and back then the numbers correlated to their spot in the batting order. That's why, for the Yankees, Babe Ruth was No. 3 and Lou Gehrig No. 4. It was an easy way to let people in the stands know who was who. The Indians and Yankees were the first to do it and by 1937 every MLB team was doing it.
The first retired number belonged to the Yankees' Lou Gehrig, a beloved figure and the “Iron Man” of baseball, who died of a disease that now bears his name. In 1939, on Lou Gehrig Day, after he gave his “luckiest man” speech, the Yankees retired his #4. Essentially they were saying, “No one is fit to wear this uniform again.” Five years later, in 1944, the New York Giants retired Carl Hubbel's #11. Four years after that, on the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium, and as he was dying of cancer, the Yankees finally got around to retiring Ruth's #3.
Back then, numbers weren't quite as sacrosanct as they are now. Indeed, when the Yankees released Ruth in February 1935, they immediately gave #3 to the new right fielder George Selkirk, who wore it for seven years until he entered military service during WWII. Bud Metheny then wore it from 1943 to 1946, but he only last three games into the ‘46 seasons, so the number went to Eddie Bockman (who lasted four games), Roy Weatherly (two), and finally Frank Colman, a midseason pickup from the Pirates (five games).
By now the number should’ve been a jinx. Allie Clark took it on in ‘47 and played 24 games for the Yanks, then was traded to Cleveland in the off-season. That’s how, in ‘48, it wound up on the back of Cliff Mapes, a rookie outfielder. Except the Yankees threw itself that party for the silver anniversary of its stadium, not to mention its first championship (they’d won 11 by then), where it planned to finally retire Ruth's number. Here's how big of a deal that wasn‘t. This is the report in the May 25, 1948 New York Times.
It’s buried on pg. 34, lost amid the box scores. It got a bigger spread the day of (“Famous ‘No. 3’ to be Retired for All Time”) but we didn't get any highlights the next day. Nothing on Ruth's weakened state and cancer-ridden voice. Two months later, Ruth died.
But back to Mapes. To replace his No. 3, he—as A-Rod would do in the 21st century—just added a “1” and went with 13. The following year, maybe figuring that 13 was unlucky, he chose No. 7. Which he kept through the ‘51 season, by which time he was in a limited role, coming to the plate as a left-handed specialist. Then a few things happened. In early July, rookie Mickey Mantle, of whom such great things were expected that he had been given No. 6—signaling that the Yankees expected him to be next in line after Ruth (3), Gehrig (4), and DiMaggio (5)—was sent to the minors for seasoning. By the time Mantle returned in August, Mapes had been traded to St. Louis, and Mantle, figuring the No. 6 was a jinx for him, or put too much pressure on him, took Mapes’ No. 7. Which he wore until the Yankees retired it on Mickey Mantle Day: June 8, 1969.
So that's why we talk about Mapes when we talk about retired numbers: When he died in 1996, the fact that he shared numbers with Ruth and Mantle was the primary focus of his two-paragraph New York Times obit. Almost nothing else was mentioned.
But you know what the Times inexplicably left off? Mapes wore the number of yet another Hall of Fame icon of baseball. In his last season in the Majors, with the Detroit Tigers, Mapes wore No. 5, which, throughout most of the ‘30s and ’40s had been the number for the original “Hammerin' Hank,” Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg. What was his number still doing around in 1952? Well, the Tigers were late comers in the retiring-numbers biz. In fact, they were the 13th of the original 16 teams to retire a number—Al Kaline's No. 6 in 1980. By that point, the Yankees had retired nine numbers, the Dodgers six, and three expansion teams (Astros, Brewers, Mets) had gotten in the game. The Tigers didn't get around to retiring Greenberg's number (along with teammate Charlie Gehringer) until 1984—two years before his death at age 75.
So there you have it: Ruth, Greenberg, Mantle ... and Mapes.
Or is that it? As mentioned, Mapes' No. 13 was later worn by Alex Rodriguez, one of the greatest players of all time, if not exactly one of the most beloved of all time. A lot will have to be forgiven before the Yanks ever retire it, but it could happen. Meanwhile, the fifth number Mapes wore, No. 46 for the St. Louis Browns, who later became the Baltimore Orioles, was worn by popular O's pitcher Mike Flanagan.
I‘ve looked for others that might’ve shared the number of more, or as many, baseball immortals, but no one comes close to Mapes. He's the Forrest Gump of baseball.