Ask professional athletes and sports fanatics, and they will tell you that numbers are a big deal. For some, a number is just a number, but for athletes they hold special meaning. For example, if Boston heavy hitter Carl Yastrzemski’s number 8 is turned sideways, it resembles the symbol for infinity. Some thought this explained, in part, his extraordinary skill. So how do the athletes get their numbers, and what happens to the numbers when they’re finished with them?
The first photographic evidence of numbers being used in baseball is in a 1909 photograph of Cuban pitching star Jose Mendez. He wore the number 12 on his sleeve. The Cleveland Indians became the first major league team to try uniform numbers in a similar fashion to those being used in hockey and football. It lasted only a short time, and a brief attempt the following year was unsuccessful. In 1923, St. Louis Cardinals manager, Branch Rickey, tried uniform numbers. People across the country ridiculed his efforts. It was not until the mid 1930s that major league baseball made uniform numbers uniform.
Now, depending upon availability, major league baseball players choose their own numbers. If the number happens to be unavailable, players are not above wheeling and dealing to get the number they want. Rickey Henderson paid Toronto’s Turner Ward $25,000 for rights to the number 24, and Roger Clemens gave Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays a $15,000 Rolex watch in order wear the number 21. The deals made to procure preferred numbers sometimes take strange turns. In 1991 relief pitcher Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams traded Phillies John Kruk two cases of beer for the number 28. When Carlton Fisk moved from Boston to Chicago, he couldn’t get the number 27, so he played with the number 72 to symbolize a turn around in his career.
Like major league baseball, the NBA does not assign specific numbers to its players. Players have almost complete autonomy in choosing their own numbers. Of course no conversation about NBA numbers could be complete without addressing the iconic number 23. Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan ended up with the number 23 because of his brother. In high school, Jordan looked up to his brother and wanted to wear the number 45, but his brother was still using it. Jordan then halved the number 45 to 22.5 and rounded up to 23. The rest is, as they say, history. While LeBron James was in Cleveland, he wore number 23, but switched when he moved to the Heat because he felt number 23 should stay singularly identified with Michael Jordan. James switched to the number 6 which he associates with his Olympic number, the birth of two children, and NBA legend Julius Erving. Ron Artest wore the number 37 as homage to Michael Jackson whose Thriller album spent 37 weeks at the top of the music charts. Derek Fisher, however, chose 37 as his number because people were critical of his age. So why not just put it out there every game? Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat chose number 3 because of his spiritual beliefs and the representation of the Holy Trinity.
The National Football League provides some very clear and specific rules for the numbers each player wears. Quarterbacks, punters, and place kickers are limited to numbers 1-19. Running backs and defensive backs use the numbers 20–49. Men playing at the center position must use numbers 50–79, while offensive guards and tackles wear numbers 60–79. Men who play at the wide receiver position use numbers 10–19 and 80–89. The numbers 40-49 and 80-89 are provided for those playing tight ends and halfbacks. Defensive linemen use numbers 50–79 and 90–99, and linebackers wear 50–59 and 90–99.
With numbers being such an integral part of players’ histories, many NFL players have tried to get around the rules. Football great Reggie Bush wore number 5 in both high school and at USC, so he petitioned the NFL for permission to wear that number. Deion Sanders found himself in the same position. Both men ended up wearing their preferred numbers during mini-camps but they had to wear their regulation numbers during games. Other players have gone to greater lengths to obtain their preferred numbers.
Jeff Feagles, New York Giants punter sold his number 10 to then rookie Eli Manning. His compensation was an all expense paid vacation to the Gulf of Mexico. Then after choosing the number 17 to celebrate his 17th NFL season, Feagles sold his number to Plaxico Burress. It seems the Giants signed Burress on March 17, so Burress wanted to play under that number. Feagles was only too happy to commemorate his 18th season in the NFL, and he used the received funds to build an outdoor kitchen at his new house. For some,money doesn’t cut it. When the NFL Buffalo Bills drafted O.J. Simpson, his number 32 was already taken. Rather than buy the number from the Bill’s second year running back Gary McDermodt, he played so aggressively during training camp that McDermodt got cut.
Hey Hey Hey Goodbye
All professional sports franchises retire athlete numbers. The practice is usually reserved for the undisputed greats of the game. It’s considered a great honor, and the athlete will forever be known as one of the greats in the sport, no matter who comes after.
The retiring of numbers is generally based upon the perceived greatness of athletic achievement and the longevity of the players. A team might retire the number based upon what the athlete has achieved with that team. Other teams look at the player’s entire career, including seasons spent with other teams, when considering the retiring of numbers. Occasionally, teams will retire a number and then reissue the number for certain reasons. Most notably is the NFL that has such big rosters it cannot afford to retire many numbers. In other cases, the retiring of a number is meant to honor an athlete whose career is cut short by illness or death. Baseball legend Lou Gehrig is the first athlete to have his number retired based on all three categories: greatness, illness, and death.
However, quite a few teams retire numbers for more unconventional reasons. The late Jackie Robinson had his number 42 retired across baseball for many reasons including breaking through the color barrier of MLB. The Seattle Seahawks retired the number 12 to honor their fans who are considered the 12th man. Even though he never played for them, the Miami heat retired the number 23 in 2003 to commemorate the greatness of Michael Jordan. Pat Tillman played for the Arizona Cardinals. After the 2001 season, he left the team to enlist in the US Army. He was killed by friendly fire in 2004, and the Cardinals retired his number that same year.
As long as professional sports use a numerical system for identifying players, numbers will be important. These numbers aren’t just statistics recording athletes’ achievement. The uniform numbers, for players and fans alike, are tied into the identity and tradition during the athletes’ careers and after.
Photo Credits: Wikipedia