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Brewers players have worn sixty-nine distinct uniform numbers in the team's forty-one seasons in Milwaukee. Here is a quick trivia question for you: which uniform number has gone the longest without being worn by a Brewers player? Take a minute to think about it.
If you looked at the title of this post and figured #17, you are incorrect. Among the retired numbers, Hank Aaron's #44 was last worn in 1976 and Rollie Fingers' #34 was last worn in 1991. Among available numbers, #17 is in second place, behind #35. Of course, there is a reason no player has worn #35 since 1990: longtime coach (and former pitcher) Bill Castro.
Number seventeen hasn't been off-limits because of a long-time coach, though the last player to wear it did spend some time as a coach. No, #17 is the team's sole number retired in deed, if not in name. Many, if not most, Brewers fans will name only one player if asked who wore #17, but he was not the only one.
Follow the jump for the full list!
Long before anyone could think about retiring Brewers uniform numbers, Pete Koegel simply tried to make a career out of baseball. One of only a few Kansas City Athletics draft picks to make the majors, he was acquired by the Seattle Pilots late in the 1969 season. In 1970, he split time between AA Jacksonville and AAA Portland, seeing both coasts, while earning a September call up. He batted nine times in seven games (one start) in 1970 and appeared in two games before being traded in April 1971. A player who made only nine appearances in a Brewers uniform may not seem important but consider this: his trade to Philadelphia (with inaugural #41 Ray Peters) started a transaction chain that culminated in the acquisition of Cecil Cooper. The little
things trades are important.
After Koegel was dealt, #17 was assigned to another guy trying to start a career. In 1963, the Minnesota Twins let 19-year-old Paul Ratliff start a few games behind the plate. He hit .190 in very limited duty and then disappeared for seven years. He resurfaced in Minnesota in 1970 and was acquired by the Brewers on July 8, 1971 in exchange for Milwaukee Braves/Brewers trivia answer Phil Roof. Ratliff went 7 for 41 as a backup catcher in 1971 and bounced back to go 3 for 42 the next season. Incredibly, four of his ten hits were home runs and another was a double. However, his 44 strikeouts (in 92 PA) more than canceled out those positive outcomes. Ratliff's anemic offense led to an interesting trade: he was shipped to California for his replacement in #17: the immortal Joe Azcue. A veteran catcher and a former All-Star, Azcue appeared in only eleven games for Milwaukee.
In 1973, #17 finally found some playing time. Outfielder (and newfangled designated hitter) Bobby Mitchell wore it for the next three seasons while hitting .241 with 19 home runs. In fact, his 19 HR and 81 RBI in just under 600 plate appearances might have made an encouraging season if it didn't take him three years to reach those totals.
As soon as #17 reached a semblance of stability, it bounced around again. In 1976, former Pilots draft pick Bob Hansen hit just .164 in his second stint with the Brewers, earning a permanent trip to the minor leagues. Brewers 1974 8th round pick Steve Bowling was the next to don the uniform, but was drafted by the expansion Blue Jays following an uninspiring September. In 1977, 35-year-old third baseman Ken McMullen finished his career in #17.
Finally, 1978 came around. As the season began, Jim "Gumby" Gantner was a former 12th round pick out of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who owned a .267 average in 40 career games. After bouncing between #11 and #31 in his first two seasons with the team, he settled into #17 in 1978 and never looked back. In 1981, he took over the second base job and held onto it for a decade. He retired following the 1992 season having rapped out 1696 career hits in 1801 career games (including nearly 1500 at second base). He led the league in an offensive category just one time (HBP in 1989), but combined with long-time teammates Robin Yount and Paul Molitor to crack the record books with the most career hits by a trio of teammates. He remains third on the team's all-time games played list and fourth on the team's career hits leaderboard. He would return to the team as a coach in 1996 and 1997.
Though #17 has not been officially retired, the fact it has not been given out in nearly two decades speaks volumes. It also prompts questions about why the de facto retirement has not been made official. Perhaps he doesn't want the ceremony. Regardless, the number 17 shows it only takes one special player to personify a number.