Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has responded to a request to retire Babe Ruth's uniform number across the major leagues by announcing that all whole numbers are being taken out of circulation.
Linda Tosetti, Ruth's granddaughter, wrote Selig recently to ask that the Bambino's number 3 be retired, an honor that has gone only to Jackie Robinson, whose number 42 was declared off limits in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson's becoming the first black player in the modern major leagues.
Not what Tosetti had in mind, but Selig granted her request and went a step further. Or an infinite number of steps.
"Retiring all whole numbers will stand as a tribute to all of the great men who have played our game, all of whom have worn whole numbers," Selig said in a statement. "Of course, it'll also be a tribute to all the jerks and criminals who have played, who have also worn whole numbers, but listen, anyone who knows me knows I'm a lot more interested in the great men who have played, and this is what we're going to do, and we're happy with it."
Unlike in 1997, when players wearing Robinson's 42 were allowed to continue wearing it, players wearing whole numbers won't be grandfathered in. Whole numbers will disappear from ballplayers' backs forever. It wasn't immediately clear what would replace the numbers, but a front-office source speculated that glyphs, fractions, decimals and even doodles would serve as identifying marks on uniforms.
"I'm sure a lot of players will just add a 'point-zero' to their existing numbers," the source said, "but there's a lot of room for creativity. I mean, what's a better number for a Jonathan Broxton or Bartolo Colon than pi?"
Tosetti is a Connecticut native who roots for the Boston Red Sox, Ruth's first big-league team, and against the New York Yankees, the team with which he's most associated and for which he wore number 3. Players didn't wear uniform numbers when Ruth played in Boston. She argued in her letter to Selig that while Ruth is often remembered today, he isn't honored.
"We retired Jackie Robinson's number for myriad ... reasons," Selig wrote back, according to the Baltimore Sun, "but the sociological importance is obviously very critical to us." Tosetti's reply: "Frankly, if Babe Ruth didn't save baseball" -- a reference to the 1919 Black Sox scandal -- "there wouldn't be a game for Jackie or anyone else to even play."
It's an argument with some merit, and one that put baseball in an awkward position. There's been a push in recent years to retire the number 21 in honor of Roberto Clemente, who many believe did as much for Latino players as Robinson did for blacks. If Robinson why not Ruth, and if Ruth why not Clemente, and if Clemente why not -- whoever's the next great player with a supporter willing to put up a Web site and start gathering signatures on a petition?
And how does baseball say no without denigrating the achievements of the player in question?
So Selig, thinking proactively as usual, preempted the whole process. Players are reportedly upset, especially those who had, upon joining a new team, paid a teammate to give up a particular desired number. But some are embracing the new way. Boston Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez has already announced that his new number will be Humpf.