What Is A Number
Sometimes it’s good to start at the beginning and in the spirit of common sense let’s do that. So, what is a number? A number is a mathematical object. These objects, or numbers, are used to measure, count, and label. There we go, simple as that. Well, simple as that plus at least 40,000 years of evolution to get to our current numerical system, but who’s counting?
Welcome to the present. Most are familiar with our modern day numerical system. You know what it is: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. This system is in place for one thing. And what is that one thing? For us, as humans, to better communicate with each other. This includes the wonderful world of baseball.
The first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of baseball and numbers is runs scored. That’s the goal of the game, to score the most runs and win. Yay! We won! It’s great to win. We all love the feeling of being on top, but, unfortunately for those competitive types this article is not about the counting side of numbers, it is about the labeling side. More specifically, the numbers that are seen on the jerseys of all ballplayers. Why are they there? Are they like numbers on football jerseys that denote position? What team was the first to do it? And why? If these questions interest you, then buckle up while the way back machine coughs and sputters to life. All ready? Here we go!
Well, that was a bumpy ride. Hope nobody got motion sickness.
Welcome to Cleveland and the beautiful southern shore of Lake Erie. It is June 26, 1916 and the Cleveland Indians are playing the Chicago White Sox. Shoeless Joe Jackson is starting in right for the White Sox and Tris Speaker is in center for the Indians. 8,765 fans are crammed into League Park waiting for their hometown heroes to take the field. Finally, after much anticipation, the Indians swarm out of the dugout, but something is different. The players are wearing numbers on their sleeves.
Why would they do such a thing? Because you asked for it. The fans and scorekeepers were having such a hard time keeping track of who’s who that, after popular demand, the club gave way to pressure and stitched some numbers for your viewing pleasure. Although, the number craze didn’t catch on and after a few weeks the enumerating jerseys disappeared.
Attention, the way back machine is leaving for the near future in 3,2,1…
Welcome to lovely St. Louis. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson fame is the manager and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. John Sheridan, a renowned St. Louis sportswriter, and future Hall of Famer, suggested that Rickey put numbers on the sleeves of his Redbirds. Rickey thought that sounded swell and made sure that the digits agreed with the players’ place in the batting order. Thus the leadoff hitter would wear number one, the two slot number two, and so on.
But, change was not the Cardinals’ players strong suit. They disliked the idea thoroughly, and Rickey wasn’t all that attached either, and the experiment was scrapped. So long numbers! And hello again to the way back machine.
Beep, bloob, bloop.
And away we go!
Ah, the Big Apple. There is possibly nothing better than the Roaring Twenties in New York City. You have jazz music, flappers, Art Deco, and Babe Ruth. Although this period was very soon to come to a close, why not enjoy it while we can.
The date was January 22 and the New York Yankees, coming off two straight World Series victories, decided to flaunt their dominance by putting numbers on the backs of their champs. The people wanted to know which rotund galoot was Ruth and what better way than to sew a large number on the back of his jersey. They did pull an idea from Mr. Rickey and decided to make the numbers correspond with batting order, hence why Ruth was number 3 and Lou Gehrig was number 4.
Little did the Yankees know that other clubs were paying attention to their announcement, other clubs like the Cleveland Indians (you remember them from earlier), who decided to jump on the number train as well. And, unfortunately for the Yankees, their opening game of the ’29 season was a rain out, and the Indians beat them to the punch, becoming the first official team to wear numbers on the backs of their jerseys. Saying you are going to be the first doesn’t always mean that you will be. Tough luck, Yanks.
It is time for one last trip and that is the best of all, the trip home. Hopefully you have some dramamine left.
Here we go!
Home Again, Home Again
So, 1929 was the year the number finally caught on. It’s not surprising that it was the Yankees who were the spark. And since then numbers are synonymous with the greats that have worn them. Who can’t think of Jackie Robinson when they see the number 42? Or Babe Ruth when they see number 3? What about 24? Who do you think of? How about 00? Numbers have become as much a part of the game as sunflower seeds and eye black. And really, without numbers how could we tell who we were watching anyway.
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Benjamin Sabin is a baseball historian and writer. He has had various articles published by the Society For American Baseball Research (SABR). He is a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan, but he loves all things baseball. He is married, has a daughter, and two cats.