One of the most fascinating aspects of MLB history is looking back and seeing which numbers were worn by the legends of the game and the reasons that led to their decisions.
MLB History: The First Numbers
The earliest official record of a professional baseball team having a number on the back of a jersey is 1907, with the Reading Red Roses of the Atlantic League. The Cleveland Indians would also wear numbers on their jerseys for a couple of weeks in 1916 and 1917 and the 1923 St. Louis Cardinals tried in 1923.
While numbers were occasionally worn, the 1929 season marks the first time they were regularly worn when the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees both decided on having numbers on the back of their jerseys. Originally, the number on the back of the jersey represented your spot in the lineup which famously led to Babe Ruth wearing number 3 while Lou Gehrig wore 4.
By the mid 1930s, most teams had followed the Indians and Yankees and with the Philadelphia Athletics being the final team to add numbers to their jerseys in 1937.
Influential Numbers in Baseball
In MLB history, only one player has had the honor of having their number retired throughout baseball; number 42, Jackie Robinson. Robinson famously broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and was retired during the 1997 season. At the time, baseball allowed those players currently wearing 42 the opportunity to continue wearing the number, finishing with Yankees Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.
While 42 is retired throughout baseball, Mets second baseman Robinson Cano, named for Jackie Robinson, wears the reverse, number 24, in honor of the famous Brooklyn Dodger. Ken Griffey Jr. also wore the number 24 however he decided his number based on the address of his first Seattle apartment.
Like Griffey Jr., some players have more personal reasons for settling on a specific number. Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino wears number 0 for the O’s in his last name. While Andrew Benintendi wears number 16, the same number his father wore in college.
For Jason Heyward, number 22 has a special place in his heart. During his senior year of high school, he lost a close friend and teammate in a car accident. To honor his friend, Heyward wears his number to continue his legacy.
In Japan, number selection is much more rigid and numbers have specific reasons. For instance, the best pitcher on the team is always assigned number 18. As a result, number 18 has been worn by Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenta Maeda, and Hiroki Kuroda. When Masahiro Tanaka joined the Yankees, Kuroda already had number 18 and despite being the new Ace, Tanaka opted for 19. Since returning to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka has switched back to 18.
It is also common to see local areas adopt a number of local superstars. In the 90s, the hottest number in the greater Baltimore area was number 8 for Cal Ripken Jr. while children near Philly battled for Jimmy Rollins‘ number 11. Fans in Chicago and St. Louis were drawn to Sammy Sosa‘s number 21 and Mark McGwire‘s 25.
When picking a jersey, the number can be extremely important. Regardless if the reason is a personal connection, to honor a former player or for being the first number you were given in the Major Leagues, as was the case for Aaron Judge‘s 99, numbers on the back of a jersey usually are pieces of MLB history.
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