Where Do Uniform Numbers Come From?

Sunday was the sixty-fifth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Robinson took the field on April 15, 1947, he brought an end to an unofficial ban on African American ball players that had been in place since shortly after the first major leagues formed in the 1870s and 1880s.

To honor this anniversary, every Major League player on Sunday wore the number 42.

Six Toronto Blue Jays honor Jackie Robinson by wearing the number 42. Who are they? Since they're all wearing the same number, I can't look in the official program to tell you. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

In addition to being the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, 42 was Robinson’s number.

In 1997 Major League Baseball retired the number 42 across both leagues. The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, who wore 42 prior to 1997 and was allowed to keep the number, is the only big league ballplayer who wears the number on a daily basis. Five years ago, at the urging of Ken Griffey, Jr., Bud Selig allowed several players to honor Robinson by wearing 42 on the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson’s first Major League Game.

(Unfortunately, Major League Baseball doesn’t have similar festivities planned for Larry Doby Day on July 5.)

The fact that it’s possible to play a full slate of Major League games in which every player wears the same number raises a question:

Why do ballplayers wear numbers in the first place?

Baseball survived and thrived for several decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without players wearing numbers on their uniforms. The oldest photo of a player wearing a numbered uniform dates to 1909. Cuban pitcher José Mendez, who would eventually be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, clearly has the number “12” on his Cuban Stars uniform.

Number 12, José Mendez of the Cuban Stars

The Cleveland Indians in 1916 became the first Major League club to take the field with numbered uniforms.

Players wore large numbers on their sleeves, presumably so that fans would be able to identify which player was which. The Indians listed players’ numbers on the team’s official scorecards. Cleveland’s fling with uniform numbers lasted only a few weeks. The Indians tried again to number their players during the 1917 season, but that experiment was also short-lived.

It wasn’t until 1929 that the New York Yankees made numerals a permanent feature on their uniforms.

The Yankees’ numbers corresponded to each player’s place in the batting order. Thus Babe Ruth wore #3 and Lou Gehrig wore #4. Pitchers and back-up players wore numbers ranging from #10 through #32. Every integer from 1 to 32 except 13 and (curiously) 23 and 29 was accounted for.

There was some concern that the Yankees’ numbering system was not sustainable. As players changed teams or as lineups changed in subsequent seasons, a #7 might end up batting before a #2; a team might find itself with two #5s; or a #13 might find his way into the starting lineup. But fans loved the numbers, so the Yankees found a way to make it work.

The Yankees’ Major League peers initially ridiculed the Pinstripers’ unusual fashion decision. But by 1932 numbers had become standard across the majors. Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 were the first team to put numbers on the front of uniforms.

Other sports were also slow to adopt numbers on jerseys. Uniform numerals made their soccer (or association football) debut at a 1911 match in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. By 1912 players for soccer clubs in New South Wales were required to wear uniforms with numbers on the back at official tournaments. FIFA began requiring numbers at the World Cup in 1954. But numbers didn’t become standard in England’s Football Association until the 1990s.

Numbering in rugby union dates back to a match between New Zealand and Queensland in 1897. Uniform numbers became a convention in international rugby in 1922. Even so, some rugby teams—most notably the Welsh national team and England’s Leicester Tigers and Bristol club teams—wore letters instead of numbers in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Akron Pros didn't need uniform numbers to win the 1920 NFL Championship.

Rules For Uniform Numbering

American football, ice hockey, and basketball adopted numbers around the same time as baseball did. While hockey has no formalized numbering rules—players can wear any number from 1 through 99—basketball and football do.

In college and high school, basketball players may only wear numbers consisting of the digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Thus 34 is legal, but 36 is not. The reasoning behind this rule is that referees can make the numbers 0-5 with a single hand, which makes numbers with these digits easy to communicate to scorekeepers and other officials. The 0-5 rule has not always been in place. George Mikan, for instance, wore 99 when he played for DePaul in the 1940s. He continued wearing 99 during his NBA career.

The NBA has always allowed players to wear any two-digit number, but since many players keep their college numbers, uniforms with digits 6-9 are uncommon. But there are plenty of notable exceptions. LeBron James currently wears 6; Kobe Bryant for many years wore 8; Dennis Rodman wore 91 with the Bulls; and Ron Artest (before he was Metta World Peace) wore 37 to honor Michael Jackson.

Uniform numbers are most significant in football.

In 1952 the NFL began the practice of assigning numbers by position. The league updated its numbering system in 1973. In the NFL only quarterbacks, placekickers, and punters can wear the numbers 1-19. Running backs and defensive backs are limited to numbers between 20 and 49. Wide receivers and tight ends for many years were only allowed to wear numbers in the 80s, but in 2004 the league opened 10-19 to wide-outs. (As teams retired the numbers of their top receivers, numbers in the 80s became scarce.) Numbers only apply to a player’s primary position. If a linebacker (50-59) plays a down at tight end, he doesn’t have to change his jersey. He does, however, have to report to the referee that he is an eligible receiver.

College football also has numbering conventions, but they aren’t nearly as strict as the NFL’s. Backs can wear any number from 1-49; snappers 50-59; guards 60-69; offensive tackles 70-79; and tight ends 80-89. There are no numbering rules for defensive or special teams players in the NCAA.

Retiring Numbers

The practice of retiring numbers—honoring a player by taking his or her number out of circulation—began in 1934 when the Toronto Maple Leafs retired Ace Bailey’s #6. (Bailey played much of his career in the age before uniform numbers.)

Retiring numbers is now common throughout professional sports in North America and major college sports in the United States.


About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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