Throwback Thursday: When the Red Sox First Retired Numbers

In a pregame ceremony 40 years ago, the team officially retired the numbers of Ted Williams and Joe Cronin.

Photo via Associated Press

Photo via Associated Press

You might have expected the first pre-game ceremony to officially retire two Red Sox numbers to be a big affair. It was May 29, 1984, and Ted Williams was going be at Fenway to see his number 9 appear on the facade over Section 1, never to be worn again. Baseball history was in the making.

But that night 30 years ago was inauspicious. The Red Sox were 17 games out of first place. (And you thought this season was going poorly.) It was raining. The team announced an attendance of 15,472, but it was probably less than that, according to the Globe‘s Peter Gammons. Fans had been confused when the team announced it would retire the numbers of Joe Cronin and Ted Williams. No one had actually worn Williams’s number since he took it off. And plenty of people had worn Cronin’s. As Mark Armour writes in a biography of him, “Few fans would have known what number Cronin had worn.” (It was No. 4.)

The ceremony had come about the previous fall, when the Sox decided to begin retiring numbers and implemented strict criteria to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. According to the rules they drew up, a player needed to be a member of the Hall of Fame, and he had to play 10 or more years with the Red Sox. At the time, only two men passed the test: Williams and Cronin, who had played, then managed, then general managed the team.

It was Cronin’s decision to turn up for the honor that night that really convinced Williams to show up. In his biography of Cronin, Mark Armour writes:

Had the event been for Williams alone, it might never have come off—he was generally uninterested in ceremonies or honors, especially when they involved him… But the main impetus for the evening was not to honor Ted Williams, who had been honored plenty; it was to honor Joe Cronin. Cronin was very ill, confined to a wheelchair, and suffering from cancer that would take his life less than four months later. For Cronin, a beloved former teammate, manager, and general manager, Williams enthusiastically signed on.

And so the team conducted the ceremony before a small, wet crowd. Cronin’s illness kept him off the field, but he watched from a box as Williams devoted much of his speech to his former manager. Gammons reported:

“One of the great breaks I had in this game was that I got to play for a manager like Joe,” Ted told the audience. Later, he told reporters that “Joe would always have some little blip before a game to get you thinking about the pitcher and the situation.”
He then laughed and recalled a story. “One day I told him, Joe, you’re getting gray hair,’ and he snapped back, and you know who put them there.’ “

Since then, the Sox have retired just five other numbers (the MLB retired Jackie Robinson’s, too), many of them before games when the Sox were having a better day. But that’s not to say that nothing went the Sox’s way on the night of that first ceremony. After all, it delayed the game by enough time that the umpires eventually had to call it off due to rain, saving the Sox from what was looking like an inevitable loss to the Twins. They might have retired, but Cronin and Williams had done it again for their old Red Sox.