Who had the first retired number in professional sports?

Ace Bailey's 1933-34 OPC card. Every card he had used this picture.

The news in Toronto at the moment is that the Jays are going to retire Roberto Alomar’s #12 in honour of his election to the Hall of Fame.  This is the first number to be retired by the Jays, who until now would put a uniform number up on the “Level of Excellence” but otherwise leave it in circulation.  This is how Jo-Jo Reyes comes to be wearing Dave Stieb’s old #37 and Frank Francisco is in Tom Henke’s #50.

The practice is akin to what the Leafs do, where they “honour” numbers by raising them to the rafters, but still leave them available for use.  It irks some of the old guard (see Keon, Dave), but the Leafs only retire numbers in exceptional circumstances, of which there have only been two.  Number 5 is retired for Bill Barilko, who died in a plane crash shortly after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1951.  The other retired number is 6, which was the first number retired in North American professional sport.

I always find it a little surprising that it took as long as it did to retire the first number.  Part of it comes from the fact that in the early days, most players didn’t wear numbers at all.  In hockey, for example, I think it was only in the early teens that numbers first appeared, and even then it took a while for a uniform number to really be associated with a player.  The first number to be retired in baseball was Lou Gehrig’s in 1939.  In football, the first was Ray Flaherty’s in 1935.  At a Valentine’s Day, 1934 benefit game for the Leafs’ Ace Bailey, Ace’s number became the first retired number of all.

Ace had broken in with the Toronto St. Pats in 1926-27, the year they would become the Leafs.  A gifted skater and scorer, he was one of the top offensive stars of the late 1920s.  He led the league in goals and points in 1928-29 and between 1926-27 and 1930-31 he would have four top-ten finishes in assists, three in points and two in goals.  When the Kid Line broke through in the early 1930s and became the Leafs top offensive unit (and one of the best in the game), Ace was recast in more of a defensive role.  He excelled here, too, becoming one of the Leafs best penalty killers and defensive shadows.  He was a big part of the Stanley Cup win in 1932.

On December 12, 1933, the Leafs took on the Bruins in Boston.  During a Bruins power play, Boston great Eddie Shore led a rush into the Leaf end.  He was unceremoniously dumped by Leaf defenseman King Clancy and went spinning into the corner boards.  Enraged (and he claimed dazed as well), he got up and went after the first Leaf he saw.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t Clancy.  It was Ace Bailey.

King Clancy's 1933-34 Ice Kings card. King doesn't really look like Ace at all.

The play had stopped by this point and Bailey had his back to Shore, gliding bent over with his stick resting across his knees.  Shore hit him from behind, flipping him up in the air.  His head (no helmets in those days) struck the ice with an enormous crack and he lay there, twitching, convusling.

Even Shore seemed stunned by what had just happened.  Red Horner, the other Leaf defenseman, came up to Shore and asked him, “What did you do that for, Eddie?”  Shore said nothing, he just grinned (what the grin meant has never really been explained).  Horner flattened him with a single punch, leaving Shore also unconscious on the ice, blood spreading.  Both were carted off on stretchers.

Red Horner's 1933-34 Ice Kings card. From what I can tell, the signature is legit. No answer with respect to the coffee stain.

Shore was the first to recover and he came to Bailey in the Leaf dressing room.  Ace was briefly lucid.  “I’m really sorry, Ace,”  Shore said.

“Don’t worry, Eddie,” Ace replied, “It’s all part of the game.”

Bailey had a fractured skull and was not expected to live.  A priest went so far as to perform the Last Rites.  All the papers had two versions of their stories ready, one for each possible outcome.  His father went to Boston with a gun to avenge his son.  The Leafs managed to alert the Boston police and everything was averted.

Bailey survived the night, though, and slowly became stronger.  He would recover fully enough to lead a normal existence, though never enough to play hockey again.

On Feb. 14, 1934, the Leafs played the first assembled team of NHL All-Stars in a benefit game for Ace and his family, the highlight of which was Ace, in street clothes, meeting up with Shore, in uniform for the NHL team.  The two men shook hands and the audience erupted.  Ace’s number 6 was retired.

The Leafs would miss Ace.  They had a lot of great teams and scored a lot of goals but lacked the shutdown presence that would allow them to win the big one.  It wasn’t until 1942 and a new defensive-oriented system took hold that they would win another championship.

Ace took a job with the Leafs as a penalty timekeeper that he kept into the 1980s, when Harold Ballard, being Harold, decided he could save a nickel by firing him.  He survived his near-death experience by almost 60 years, passing away in 1992.

Number 6 did make a reappearance in the late 1960s.  Leaf winger Ron Ellis so impressed Ace with his play that Ace offered him the use of #6.  Ellis wore it until his retirement in 1981, at which point it went back into the rafters (metaphorically – Harold wasn’t big on banners.  The current banner was raised shortly after Ace’s death, by which point Harold was no longer with us).

Ronnie Ellis in one of the few action shots from 1974-75 OPC.

I do have a 1933 OPC Shore.  I have not scanned it.  It has a number of large chunks taken out of it, maybe by a Bailey fan.  🙂

The back of Ace's card. OPC was the least wordy of the 1933-34 sets.

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6 Responses to Who had the first retired number in professional sports?

  1. Karina says:

    In the one and only book on Leafs history I’ve managed to read, I learned about Ace Bailey. What a remarkable person. Sometimes, I feel more of a connection to these Leaf players I’ve never seen play than to the once who’ve been on the ice for my team the past 5, 6 years…

    • 1967ers says:

      I met Ace once at a card show, maybe a year or so before he died. The lineup to get an autograph from him must have been 150 people long, and I doubt if a single person had ever seen him play. It was really something.

      Nice guy, too.

  2. commishbob says:

    Nice post. I’m always interested in the history of hockey.

    re: The Ron Ellis card. What is Villemure doing standing back there behind the net? Other than him having just cleared the puck and that being his follow through I can’t imagine. That’s probably Brad Park hooking Ellis’ jersey 😉

  3. Dave H says:

    Beautiful cards! My collection is missing all the great pre-51 cards….someday I will fix that!

  4. Pingback: The ugliest Eddie Shore in the universe (1933-34 OPC) | Diamond Cuts and Wax Stains

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