Uniform number (Major League Baseball)
In baseball, the uniform number is a number worn on the uniform of each player and coach. Numbers are used for the purpose of easily identifying each person on the field as no two people from the same team can wear the same number. Although designed for identification purposes only, numbers have become the source of superstition, emotional attachment, and honor (in the form of a number retirement). The number is always on the back of the jersey, often on the front, and occasionally seen on the left leg of the pants.
- 1 History
- 2 Rules about numbers
- 3 Number assignments
- 4 Superstitions, attachments, and gimmicks
- 5 Retired numbers
- 6 References
Rumor has it that the uniform number first appeared in the 19th century, but the earliest official record is from 1907, when the Reading Red Roses of the Atlantic League numbered its players' jerseys in an effort to help the fans identify them. While it is unknown if the team ever took the field with numbers, it did mark the beginning of the idea of uniform numbers. The uniform number appeared on the jerseys of the Cuban Stars, a traveling team of the early 1900s, in 1909. In an issue of the Chicago Daily News, star pitcher Jose Mendez is seen wearing the number 12 on his left sleeve.
The first time a Major League team wore numbers was on June 26, 1916. Inspired by football's and hockey's use of numbers, the Cleveland Indians trotted on their home field wearing large numbers on their left sleeves. This "experiment" was tried for a few weeks, again the next season, and then abandoned. In 1923, the St. Louis Cardinals adopted uniform numbers on their sleeves. However, as then-manager Branch Rickey recalled, the Cardinals' players were "subjected to field criticism from the stands and especially from opposing players," so the numbers were removed. At this time, the Indianapolis ABC's of the Negro National League and the San Antonio Bears of the Texas League also tried out numbers.
In 1929, the New York Yankees were planning to start the season with uniform numbers on the back of the jersey. The Indians also planned to wear numbers in this fashion. The Yankees were rained out on opening day, April 16, while the Indians played, making Cleveland the first MLB franchise to wear numbers on the back. The Yankees debuted their numbered jerseys the following day. By the mid-1930s, all MLB teams wore numbers; in 1937 the Philadelphia Athletics finally began wearing numbers on both home and away jerseys, making numbers a universal trait in the MLB. The first MLB game to feature both teams wearing numbers on their jerseys was the game between the Indians and the Yankees on May 13, 1929.
Numbers on other spots of the uniform
In 1951, the Springfield Cubs of the International League pioneered the look of having numbers on the front of the jersey. A year later, the Brooklyn Dodgers incorporated the idea into the MLB. They had intended numbers-on-front to be first used in their 1951 World Series appearance, an event which did not occur because of the New York Giant's Bobby Thomson's 9th-inning home run in the last game of the playoff series between the Dodgers and the Giants. Today, numbers on the front are very common at all levels of play. In 1940, the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League wore numbers on their pants leg; the idea didn't catch on in the MLB until the 1975-78 Astros wore numbers on their front left hip.
Rules about numbers
The official rules of baseball state that uniforms must be identical for all members of a team. The only mention of uniform number is that it must be on the back and a minimum of six inches tall. For obvious reasons, each player and coach must have their own unique number.
Violations of the rules
In their first career games, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis and Chicago White Sox pitcher Joe Horlen did not have jersey numbers. Both of these players were just called up to the big league team while it was on the road and the only uniform available had no number.
On September 27, 1999, Detroit Tigers center fielder Gabe Kapler took the field donning a numberless uniform. That day, the Tigers played their last game at historic Tiger Stadium and, in honor of great Tigers of the past, members of the starting lineup wore the uniform numbers of corresponding members of an All-Time Detroit Tigers team voted on by the fans. Since Kapler played center field, he was to wear Ty Cobb's uniform number, but since Cobb played before numbers were used, Kapler's back was blank.
On Jackie Robinson Day, teams across the MLB all wear uniform number 42 to honor him. The MLB has taken this tribute so far that, on that day only, all 30 team websites' active rosters say that every player on the team is number 42.
The original baseball numbers were based on the lineup. The starting players would be numbered 1-8, based on their spot in the order. The backup catcher would be number 9, and the pitchers would wear 10-14 (but not 13, as that is superstitious). Notable examples of this system are teammates Babe Ruth (he was number 3 and batted third for the Yankees) and Lou Gehrig (number 4, batted fourth).
Experiments with numbers by position
During the late 1930s, the Cincinnati Reds began to experiment with standardized numbering systems, by position. In 1939, they introduced what would be the longest lasting convention, in which pitchers wore numbers between 30 and 49; outfielders between 20 and 29; infielders between 10 and 19; and catchers, coaches and managers in the single digits. (An exception occurred in the early 1950s, when the Reds' coaches and managers were assigned numbers in the fifties.)
The New York Giants adopted this system in 1947, and when former Cincinnati president and general manager Warren Giles became president of the National League in 1951, many other NL clubs began to follow suit. Two American League teams, the first edition of the expansion Los Angeles Angels and the Cleveland Indians after 1963, also adopted the numbering scheme. In his 1969 memoir, Ball Four, pitcher Jim Bouton tells how he asked his new team, the Houston Astros, for his traditional number 56, but was assigned 44 instead because of the numbering custom.
Bouton wrote: "I asked if there was any chance I could get 56. [The equipment manager] said he didn't think so, that all our pitchers have numbers in the 30s and 40s. He said I'd have to talk to [general manager Spec] Richardson or manager Harry Walker if I wanted to change the rule. I said I was sure they wouldn't want to be bothered with something so small, and he said, 'Oh, you'd be surprised.' Oh no I wouldn't."
However, the number-by-position convention was never a formal rule, and a few National League clubs — notably the Los Angeles Dodgers — resisted the idea. The system was slowly abandoned during the 1970s and 1980s.
The 1950 Washington Senators tried their own system, with pitchers and catchers wearing numbers in the teens and twenties; outfielders in the thirties; and infielders in the forties. This experiment lasted only one year.
Contemporary numbering conventions
Today teams do not assign numbers based on any system; personal preference combined with retired numbers has made it impossible. However, a few trends do present themselves quite clearly: Infielders, especially shortstops and second basemen, tend to be the players who would wear single digit numbers. Single digit numbers, however, are not rare for outfielders or catchers.
- Numbers 1-14 are usually only worn by position players, while numbers 50 and above are more likely to be worn by pitchers.
- Numbers 60 and above are rarely worn in the regular season. During spring training, such high numbers are often given to players who are unlikely to make the regular-season team.
- The number 44 has been worn by many "power hitters" since Hank Aaron's career as home run king (Aaron was number 44).
- Players in spring training who are rookies or have a small chance of making the team are given very high numbers (60+). It is generally thought that the higher the number, the less chance of making the team.
- In Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese big leagues, the number 18 is often reserved for the ace pitcher. Upon arriving in the MLB, Japanese "import" pitchers have sought the number again (notably Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Hisashi Iwakuma).
- Numbers 0 and 00 are rarely worn. Adam Ottavino currently wears 0 for the Rockies, and Brian Wilson currently wears 00 for the Dodgers. Omar Olivares wore 00 for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
- Numbers 01-09 are some of the rarest numbers that have been worn. Benito Santiago wore 09 for the San Diego Padres and Florida Marlins.
Superstitions, attachments, and gimmicks
Often players grow emotionally attached to a number. When a player switches teams, his number is often already in use. Since the MLB allows number changes at any time, bribes may occur for numbers. Among the most outrageous are when Brian Jordan joined the Atlanta Braves and gave then-third base coach Fredi González a $40,000 motorcycle for #33, and when Rickey Henderson joined the Toronto Blue Jays and paid Turner Ward $25,000 for Henderson's long-time career #24. Not every player pays top dollar for his number; when Mitch Williams joined the Philadelphia Phillies, he bought #28 from John Kruk for $10 and two cases of beer.
In 1951, independent ball player Johnny Neves wore the number 7 backwards because "Neves" spelled backwards is "seven". Bill Voiselle, who is from Ninety Six, South Carolina, wore #96 from 1947–1950 to honor his hometown. Carlos May, who was born on May 17, wore number 17, meaning that his jersey read both his name and number and his birthday ("May, 17").
Some players who are unable to acquire the number they had on their previous team will obtain a similar number. For example, Roger Clemens wore #21 during the first 15 years of his career with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, and during his college days at the University of Texas. When he joined the Yankees and the Houston Astros, he switched to #22. Upon Clemens' arrival in New York, he reportedly asked long-time Yankee outfielder Paul O'Neill to surrender his #21, but O'Neill refused. Though he would eventually opt for #22, Clemens initially reversed his beloved #21, and wore #12. Clemens continued to wear #22 upon signing with his hometown Astros in 2004 and, upon re-signing with the Yankees, Robinson Canó, owner of #22 at the beginning of the 2007 season, moved to #24 in anticipation of the Yankees possibly re-signing Clemens, leaving #22 available for Clemens.
Joe Beimel has worn #97 throughout his career because his first child was born in 1997. David Wells wore #3 while with the Red Sox because his favorite player, Babe Ruth, wore #3. In his final season, playing for the Red Sox, J. T. Snow wore #84 to honor his father Jack, a former NFL player.
Baseball Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy never wore a digit on the back of his uniform with the Yankees (1931–1946) and Red Sox (1948–1950), despite managing during the era when numbers became widespread in Major League Baseball.
Numbers 0 and 00
Omar Olivares wore #00 with the Cardinals and Phillies to represent his initials of O.O. Junior Ortiz wore #0 for five years of his 13 year career because his last name starts with "O". Al Oliver wore #0 for the last 8 years of his career for the same reason, and in 1985, the Blue Jays were seeing zeroes everywhere because Oliver's teammate Cliff Johnson wore #00 at the same time. 1980s outfielder Oddibe McDowell also wore #0 because of his first name while with the Rangers. Also in the 1990s, Jack Clark and Jeffrey Leonard of the San Francisco Giants both wore #00. While with the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds from 2005-2007, outfielder Brandon Watson wore #00. Starting in the 2013 season, Adam Ottavino switched his number from 47 to 0. Finally and also in 2013, Brian Wilson took on #00 for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The most legendary players, managers, or coaches on a team will sometimes have their uniform number retired, so that future players and coaches cannot wear those numbers with that team. Only the player with the retired number can wear that number if he returns to that team as a player or coach. Generally, such retirements are reserved for the very best, who in most cases, have impacted the entire league, and are most memorable.
The first Major League Baseball player to have his number retired was Lou Gehrig (#4). #4 and #5 have each been retired by 8 teams, more than any other number. The Yankees have retired a total of 16 numbers, more than any other team. The highest player uniform number to be retired was Carlton Fisk's #72, but the Cardinals retired #85 in honor of their one-time owner August Busch, Jr.. Though he never wore a uniform, that is how old he was at the time of the honor. The Cleveland Indians retired the #455 in 2001 in honor of "the fans", to commemorate the then-longest home sellout streak ever (although MLB does not allow any team to issue three-digit uniform numbers).
Eight players and one manager, Casey Stengel, have had their numbers retired with more than one team. Nolan Ryan had two different numbers (#30 and #34) retired among three different teams. Fisk's #27 from the Red Sox and #72 from the White Sox are both retired, as are Reggie Jackson's #9 and #44, respectively, by the A's and Yankees.
The New York Yankees have retired more numbers than any other team (15 numbers for 16 players), meaning that many Yankees players get higher numbers because there aren't enough low numbers left.
The Toronto Blue Jays traditionally have not retired numbers, but rather have an alternative method of honoring their players called the 'Level of Excellence'. They did finally retire a number in 2011 (Roberto Alomar's #12).
Jackie Robinson and number 42
In 1997, Major League Baseball, for the first time ever, made a Major League-wide retirement of a number. Number 42 cannot be issued to any new players, having been retired in honor of Jackie Robinson, although all players who currently wore the number upon the mass retirement of #42, such as Mo Vaughn and Butch Huskey of the Red Sox and Mets, were allowed to keep it under a grandfather clause if they were wearing the number in honor of Jackie Robinson. With the retirement of Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees following the 2013 season, no MLB player currently wears #42 regularly. Art Silber, owner and coach of the Nationals' Class-A Affiliate Potomac, wears the number 42 as well. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom Robinson played (as a Brooklyn Dodger), had already retired the number in 1972 after Robinson's death.
However, the #42 would be worn by a number of players other than Rivera in 2007, which marked the 60th anniversary of Robinson's first appearance in Major League Baseball (the event that broke the sport's 20th-century color line). Before the season, then-Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. asked Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig for permission to wear #42 on April 15, the anniversary date of Robinson's historic game. Both gave their approval, and Selig later ruled that any player who wished to wear #42 on that date could do so. Three teams and several individual players on other teams wore #42 on that date; three other teams whose plans to wear #42 collectively were postponed due to rain on that date did so later in the month.
Some feel that Roberto Clemente deserves a similar honor, and that #21 should be retired by all teams. Clemente opened the doors for Hispanics to play Major League Baseball, just as Robinson did for African-Americans. He died in a plane crash in 1972 while helping earthquake victims from Nicaragua, ending his storied career too soon. Number 21 is retired by Clemente's team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was worn by Sammy Sosa throughout his career as a tribute to his childhood hero.
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