Have you ever noticed when you’re watching old baseball documentaries or game films about the history of the game, that some players wore different uniform numbers during their careers? Did you notice that a lot of great players wore the same number? I remember playing ball as a kid in the Fifties, and everybody wanted to be #7. Why? That was Mickey Mantle’s number. When you said “seven,” everyone knew about whom you were speaking. The #3 carries even more weight in baseball lore, but Ruth was way before my time. I once competed with a couple of friends in a game of baseball uniform numbers. Jim Bruns, Lee Milazzo (a sports critic for the Dallas Morning news) and I each decided to sit down and come up with a list of our greatest players to wear #1 through #50. This is no small task, and we gave ourselves a couple of months to complete this assignment. Many of our answers were the same, like Lou Gehrig for #4, Willie Mays for #24 and Ted Williams for #9; but what astounded me was how many great players and Hall of Famers started with one number and later changed to the number by which everyone remembers them. Most baseball fans probably know that Joe DiMaggio wore #9 his first year, before switching to his famous #5; but did you know that Hank Aaron started with #5 before changing to #44?
Team owners resisted putting numbers on uniforms initially, because they felt that fans would stop buying scorecards at the game. In 1916 and 1917, Cleveland and St. Louis experimented with numbers on the sleeves of the players, but abandoned that idea until the Thirties. Finally, the New York Yankees became the first team to permanently wear uniform numbers on April 16, 1929, not so much to identify players but to create a batting lineup. This lineup would determine which player was to bat first, second, third and so on. So, the reason “Babe” Ruth wore #3 was because he hit third in the order, and Lou Gehrig wore #4 to bat fourth. So, it stands to reason that if you have fifty or more players trying to make the club of only 25, some players who had higher numbers during Spring Training would receive lower numbers after making the team. That would explain guys like Billy Martin changing from #12 to #1, and Nellie Fox from #26 to #2. Bob Gibson started with #58 before he made #45 famous; and Tony Oliva took #38 to start, but ended up with #6.
By 1932, all of the American and National League teams were wearing uniforms with numbers, and sometimes the opposite of the above happened with players’ uniform numbers. As time went by, some players’ numbers were retired or became available because of trades or injuries. This allowed players like Billy Williams, who started with #4 to trade up to #26, while Monte Irvin made the Giants club wearing #7 before changing to #20. Larry Doby also went to a higher number. Doby went from #6 to #14.
Many players went to great lengths to keep the numbers they received when they reached the Majors. Some even offered to buy from or trade with another player for their number. There always seems to be a story behind most numbers that players wear. Barry Bonds insisted on wearing his father Bobby’s #25.
Because of the popularity of some great players, many wear their number out of respect, just like “us kids.” Brooks Robinson and George Brett started out with #6 and #25, respectively, but both ended up wearing #5 out of respect for Joe DiMaggio. Catchers Yogi Berra and Rick Ferrell began their careers with #38 and #10, only to end up with both wearing the #8 of HOF catcher Bill Dickey, who by the way, also started with #10.
Sometimes you can even play dominos with great players’ numbers. Just use the numbers with which the player started and finished, to bridge a gap from one great player to the next. Al Kaline wore #25 before he changed to #6; Mickey Mantle started with #6 his first year, before making #7 a worthy number; Hank Greenberg wore #7 before receiving #5; and Mel Ott wore #5 before he wore #4 for the rest of his career.
Two pair of great pitchers wore the same numbers: Carl Hubbell and “Lefty” Gomez both made the #11 popular, but they started their careers with the #10 and #22 respectively. Number 16 was worn by pitchers Whitey Ford and Ted Lyons, who started with #19 and #14, respectively. Speaking of #19, Bob Feller made that number famous after he traded it for his first jersey, #9. Three great players wore #21: Warren Spahn, George Kell and Roberto Clemente. Two of them, Spahn and Clemente, did not start their careers with the #21. They wore #16 and # 14, respectively, but Kell started with #21, switched to #15, and then switched back to #21. I’m sure there’s a reason, but I can’t find it. Even stranger was the number sequence worn by Roy Campanella: “Campy” started with #33, then moved to #39. He was then sent back to the Minors only to return with #56, before reclaiming his old #39.
Some of the game immortals never wore a number. Players Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, “Wee Willie” Keeler, Eddie Collins, Cy Young and Walter Johnson have all gone into the Hall of Fame numberless. Manager Connie Mack never had a number because he never wore a uniform. Anyway, I’m not going to give you the rest of my lineup. If you enjoy the history of baseball as much as I so, you will do your own list. Have fun!