Baseball is probably the world’s best documented sport.
– Ford C. Frick
Baseball is a numbers game. Its statistics are part of its lore. But there is also the fascination with the numbers worn by the men who play it.
Take Braves fan favorite Chipper Jones. The team and the league have been celebrating his announced final season this summer, and surely Atlanta will eventually retire his No. 10, that rare honor baseball gives its best.
But while Jones is often rated one of the top third basemen of all time, his number retirement cannot come close to matching that of one of baseball more forgotten players.
Allow me to tell you the story of Clifford Franklin Mapes.
You have to be a pretty good (or pretty old) baseball fan to remember the late Cliff Mapes, a tall, strong Nebraskan who joined the famed New York Yankee outfield after World War II. You could say he had his moments, just not very many of them.
The Yankees issued him uniform No. 3. As baseball fans know, that number was first worn by Babe Ruth.
After Babe left the team, a number of Yankees took turns wearing No. 3. over the next decade.
Finally, in 1948, Cliff Mapes got it. Then Cliff Mapes lost it.
In August of that year, the Yanks honored the gravely ill Babe at the Stadium by retiring No. 3 and giving Mapes No. 13 to wear. The choice proved unlucky, we could assume, because the next season, Mapes switched to No. 7.
That didn’t help, either. The team shipped Cliff to the woeful St. Louis Browns (who gave him No. 46), but they soon traded him to the Detroit Tigers. In 1952 and wearing No. 5, Cliff hit only .197 and decided to retire.
But we still have to give Cliff his due and his unique spot in baseball numerology.
As I said, in 1948, they retired his No. 3. In 1969, the Yankees retired his No. 7, which had been worn more successfully by Mickey Mantle, the player who followed Cliff in the Yankee outfield. And then in 1983 the Tigers retired his No. 5, only they gave legendary slugger Hank Greenberg credit for making it special.
Then there is that No. 46 of the Browns. The Browns didn’t retire any numbers, but they did move to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles.
The Orioles have not officially retired No. 46, either. However, it is one of three numbers not given out because it was worn by Mike Flanagan, a popular former pitcher who was working for the team in 2011 when he took his own life.
So that’s four, and I don’t think there is another player in baseball history who has had teams set aside four of the numbers he wore.
And if there is, well, Cliff has an ace on deck.
Remember that No. 13 he had to wear when the Yankees took No. 3 away in 1948?
Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez (600-plus homers, lifetime .300 average) now wears No. 13 and shows an excellent chance at having his pinstriped numeral retired.
If so, the marvelous Mapes would go five-for-five with all of his major league numbers retired by the team for which he wore them.
That would certainly make this lifetime .242 hitter the all-time king of baseball’s numbers game.