Sign of the Times

Stengel’s Retired Number from Shea Stadium now in Cooperstown

May 28, 2010
The sign which honors Casey Stengel's retired No. 37 with the Mets, formerly at Shea Stadium, now hangs at the Hall of Fame. (Milo Stewart Jr.)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – July 4, 1939, will always be remembered for Lou Gehrig’s timeless speech on what was “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” at Yankee Stadium.

But lost in the emotion of the Iron Horse’s “Luckiest Man” speech was the start of a new baseball tradition: The retiring of uniform numbers Gehrig’s No. 4 was set aside that day, marking the first time in baseball a uniform was retired. Since that time, more than 100 numbers have been put away by baseball teams.

“A lot of people don’t realize that for the first few decades, the concept of the retired number was a ceremony to retire the uniform to Cooperstown,” said Tom Shieber, senior curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Now that is completely lost, and it is a ceremony to honor a player associated with a team and very much focused on that team and often something on a wall that is big and fans can see at the ballpark.”

Now the Hall of Fame has a piece of that history too. In May 2009, The Meigray Group donated the No. 37 Casey Stengel retired number sign from Shea Stadium – and it is now on display in the Hall of Fame Library atrium.

The sign is made of painted plywood put together in two large semicircles. It features the orange and blue pinstripes of the New York Mets.

“Most of the retired number artifacts we have are some jerseys and some framed jerseys that were never worn and were donated to us after an on-field celebration and sent to Cooperstown,” said Shieber. “We didn’t have any signs.”

Hall of Fame Manager Casey Stengel’s No. 37 was retired in 1965, a year before he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first Met to have his number retired and was followed by Gil Hodges’ No. 14 in 1973 and Hall of Famer Tom Seaver’s No. 41 in 1988.

The Hall of Fame’s Dressed to the Nines online exhibit offers a list of each baseball number that has ever been retired and when it can be determined, the date on which it occurred.

“Often times this process was done in the offseason by a memo that stated the number wouldn’t be worn again,” said Shieber. “Since there was no ceremony, the memo date is listed as the retirement date. Now there seems to be a more set way to do the ceremony.”

Stengel’s number was retired by the Mets as well as by the Yankees, who have the largest number of retired numbers in baseball with 15. Stengel’s No. 37 is the only number to be issued only once by the Mets as he took over upon their expansion in 1962.

Stengel won seven World Series championships in 12 seasons with the Yankees. In four seasons with the Mets, the team never finished above last place. But that didn’t stop the “Old Professor’s” positive attitude from shining through.

"The Mets are gonna be amazing."

Samantha Carr is the manager of web and digital media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum