For true fans of baseball, as well as other sports, uniform numbers are key parts of a player’s identity. Ted Williams’ No. 9, Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 and Alex Rodriguez’s No. 13 commit themselves to our collective memory as much as the faces and movements of these star players.
But what numbers did Hall of Fame ancients Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson wear? Don’t bother racking your brain, because the answer is none. Uniform numbers did not exist permanently in the erstwhile national pastime until 1929, when the New York Yankees sprouted digits on their broad backs.
Football cottoned to the idea somewhat earlier, probably because so many linemen would be totally anonymous without numbers. Red Grange, the legendary Illinois running back of the mid-1920s, was known far and wide as simply “77.” Asked why he wore that number, Grange replied logically, “The guy in front of me in the line got number 76, and the guy behind me got number 78.”
The Cleveland Indians tried numbers briefly in 1916 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1923, but neither club stuck with the idea. Why not? Possibly clubs feared declining revenues from the sales of scorecards. More likely the plan was scrapped because it just wasn’t “traditional” in a sport that clings to its past like no other.
Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, who owned a brewery that thrived throughout Prohibition, was the innovative thinker who established numbers in baseball. Probably Ruppert, who announced the change Jan. 23, 1929, was so rich he didn’t care what anybody thought.
“Many fans do not attend games on a regular basis and cannot easily pick out the players they have come to see,” Ruppert explained. Imagine that, an owner who cared about fans.
The Indians, who also used numbers regularly in 1929, became the first team to take the field with them when New York’s opener was rained out. But because the Yankees had won six pennants in the 1920s, they received much of the credit for being trendsetters.
We don’t know whether Ruppert, general manager Ed Barrow, manager Miller Huggins or some club flunky assigned the Yankees’ numbers. We do know that the digits corresponded with each player’s spot in the batting order spot during an era when platooning was almost unknown. Thus, leadoff man Earle Combs wore No. 1, Babe Ruth his famous No. 3, Lou Gehrig No. 4, etc.
Unfortunately, 1929 was a bad year for the Yankees, as well as for the nation following the stock market crash that heralded the start of the Great Depression. After winning three straight pennants, New York slipped to second place, 18 games behind Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. You can bet more than one fan insisted, “Those dratted uniform numbers jinxed us.”
If he had been around, Huggins might have agreed. The diminutive skipper died of erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin, on Sept. 25, 1929, at age 50.
Nonetheless, numbers caught on swiftly this time. By 1932, all 16 major league teams had them, though the Athletics did not add them to their home uniforms until 1937. By the mid-1930s, the low-budget A’s were perennial losers, so maybe Mack didn’t want his players identified to Philly’s unforgiving fans.
The Brooklyn Dodgers went the old Yankees one better in 1952, when they turned up with numbers on the left front of their shirts as well as on the back - another feature since adopted by most clubs. The story goes that Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley planned to present the new look during the 1951 World Series, but Bobby Thomson ruined the scheme with his “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run that won the National League pennant playoff for the New York Giants.
In the 1960s, some baseball teams followed the lead of the old American Football League by adding player names to the backs of jerseys - usually on a strip of cloth that could be removed if a player left the club. Ironically, the once-daring Yankees still do not have names on either set of uniforms. The archrival Boston Red Sox exhibit them on the road but not at home.
As befits baseball’s most successful team, the Yankees have retired the most numbers: 15, including No. 8 twice for catchers Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra. Gehrig was the first player to be accorded this honor after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal disease of the nervous system, in 1939.
Today, it’s common for future Hall of Famers to be so honored. No future Baltimore Orioles player will wear Nos. 4 (Earl Weaver), 5 (Brooks Robinson), 8 (Cal Ripken), 20 (Frank Robinson), 22 (Jim Palmer) or 33 (Eddie Murray). Of course, Jackie Robinson’s number was retired by all clubs in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of his breaking baseball’s color line.
The Washington Nationals, those curmudgeons, have not retired the numbers of four stars who played when the franchise was in Montreal: 8 (Gary Carter), 10 (Rusty Staub and Andre Dawson) and 30 (Tim Raines). Perhaps the Nats will see fit someday to hang up Ryan Zimmerman’s No. 11 if he fulfills his potential.
Meanwhile, we should raise a beer and toast old Jake Ruppert for his foresight in 1929. Baseball without numbers? You might as well not have hot dogs and Cracker Jack.