New York Yankees: Countdown to Opening Day #9
After a long winter, we are now just nine days away from Opening Day. The New York Yankees have been killing it this spring, and with the countdown to Opening Day now in single digits, they’re ready to start playing games that matter.
The number nine hasn’t been seen in pinstripes since 1983 as it was retired in honor of Roger Maris in 1984. Maris was brought over to the Bronx in a trade with the Kansas City Royals. The Royals were jokingly referred to as the “Yankees’ major league farm team” in the late 1950’s because they sent their top prospects to New York on multiple occasions. Maris was involved in one of these occasions, as he was traded to New York along with Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri in exchange for Don Larsen, Hank Bauer, Marv Throneberry and Norm Siebern.
Maris put together a brilliant season in 1960, his first with the Yankees, leading the American League in slugging percentage, runs batted in, and extra base hits. He finished with 39 home runs, one shy of his teammate Mickey Mantle. The two would quickly become known as the “M&M Boys” as they represented one of the greatest dynamic duos of all time. Maris brought home the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1960, as well as a Gold Glove Award for his outstanding defense in the outfield. The M&M Boys led the Yankees to a World Series appearance that season but ultimately lost to the Pirates.
Following the expansion draft of 1961, the major league schedule was expanded from 154 to 162 games, which is where it still stands today. This would prove to be significant, as 1961 would become known as one of the most exciting seasons in major league history. Before the start of the season, Maris was asked if the schedule change would put Babe Ruth‘s record of 60 home runs in a season in jeopardy. Maris claimed that the record would not be touched and, “it’s a rare year when anybody hits 50 homers, let alone 60.”
Maris would soon eat his own words, as, by the halfway point of the 1961 season, both Mantle and Maris had a very good shot at breaking Ruth’s record, which had stood for 34 years. Oddly enough, the press began to turn the M&M Boys against each other during the home run race, when in reality there was no actual rivalry. Mantle had finished with 52 home runs in 1956, and because of that fans and the press saw him as the best guy to break the record.
Roger Maris wasn’t nearly as popular as Mickey Mantle, and was often seen as an outsider on “Mickey Mantle’s team”. However the M&M Boys continued to mash home runs in unison, until a hip infection caused Mantle to be hospitalized late in the season, leaving Maris as the sole player with a shot at the record. As Maris grew closer to accomplishing the feat, commissioner Ford Frick made a statement that unless the record was broken within the first 154 games, like Ruth’s was, the record would not be official.
It was widely believed that if Maris had broken the record after the 154 games mark there would be an asterisk alongside it in the history books. After the 154th game of the season, Maris had 59 home runs, hitting his 61st a few games after. The historic home run was hit on October 1, 1961, in front of a home crowd of 23, 154 fans. Despite the claims, Maris’ record lived on without an asterisk and a season that saw him break one of baseball’s most “untouchable” records also saw him win his second straight MVP Award. Maris was a seven-time All-Star and won three World Series rings in his career, two with the Yankees and one with the Cardinals. His number nine will forever belong to him, as the Yankees retired the number on July 22, 1984.
After Maris, the last player to wear the number nine was one of the greatest defensive third basemen of all time, Graig Nettles. Nettles was traded to the Yankees in 1973, where he would begin the most successful stretch of his career. In his ten years with the Yankees, Nettles was chosen to five All-Star Games, won two World Series rings and two Gold Glove Awards. Nettles career with the Yankees was not without notable accomplishments.
In Game 3 of the 1978 World Series, Nettles made multiple spectacular plays at third to stop potential run-scoring hits, and the Yankees would go on to win the game because of it. They would eventually win the next three games and ultimately win the title. He hit his 267th career home run in July of 1980 while in pinstripes, which was the most among American League third basemen. Nettles had a brief stint as the Yankees captain from 1982 until he was traded to the Padres in 1984.
Number nine has seen its fair share of history while in pinstripes, and will never be worn by a Yankees player again. The number can be seen on a plaque in Memorial Park at Yankee Stadium in honor of Roger Maris.