Rogers, I’ve Got Your Number – 8? 6? 7? 5? 3? Oh, 9!

Written by: Matt Rothenberg

By 1932, numbers on baseball uniform tops were nothing new. Various teams, including the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals, briefly dallied with the notion early in the 20th century, but it was not lasting until 1929 when the New York Yankees announced they would don numerals on their home and road jerseys. By 1931, all American League clubs stitched numbers on at least one set of uniforms.

The National League, however, was dragging its heels on the matter, as the Sporting News bemoaned.

“The big leagues have always been slow about adopting innovations,” the newspaper’s editorial mentioned in its Nov. 26, 1931, issue. “The magnates hemmed and hawed for a long time before they put into effect the foul-strike rule, and one circuit delayed a year or two after the other had adopted this boon to modern baseball.

“It is proper that the powers that be in baseball should jealously guard the game’s traditions, but there is such a thing as bending over backward in refusing to adopt improvements, the value of which can hardly be denied.”

For a few years, Brooklyn had lobbied unsuccessfully to put numbers on uniforms. Just days before their 1932 season opener, the Boston Braves decided they would be the first senior circuit team to wear numbers on a regular basis, doing so without the consent of the National League.

At the National League’s midsummer meeting in New York City on June 22, 1932, after much spirited debate, the teams formally decided to use numbers as a means of identifying players.

“The club owners felt that there was a general demand on the part of the public that the players be numbered,” National League President John Heydler told the press. “The numbers will appear on the uniforms as soon as each club can make the necessary arrangements.

“This matter of numbering players has been up before the league several times in the last three or four years, and the club presidents have held different opinions on the subject. But these opinions were promptly merged today into one general vote for numbering the players.”

Heydler made it sound as though it was a unified voice, but the meeting minutes show Cardinals owner Sam Breadon’s initial reluctance to adopt numbers in 1932, believing the rest of the league was forced into it since the Braves did it. Breadon even suggested the Cardinals might use two sets of uniform numbers. Realizing numbers were inevitable, Breadon seconded the motion set forth by Cincinnati’s Sidney Weil.

At the meeting, the teams suggested a variety of deadlines at which to begin using numbers, though it was decided teams would do it at their convenience. Most teams complied within a week, but the Chicago Cubs held out a little longer, adding the numerals after returning from a nearly month-long road trip.

A Chicago Tribune photo from July 1, 1932, shows Cubs stars Woody English and Kiki Cuyler with their new numbers: 1 and 3, respectively. The accompanying game story mentions that “none of [the Cubs] felt like defying fate by wearing number 13, so the number was eliminated.”

Though today’s players may wear whichever available number they like, early uniform number assignments tended to reflect the player’s position in the batting order. In 1932, English spent more than a month in the third spot, giving way to Cuyler, who later procured No. 3. After moving from the third spot in Chicago’s batting order, English went to the leadoff spot, allowing him to wear No. 1. Just a few days after the photo was taken at Wrigley Field, English switched lineup spots with second-place hitter Billy Herman, who wore No. 2. The two did not swap uniforms, however.

Rogers Hornsby, a player-manager with Chicago, was awarded No. 9, as can be seen by one of his jersey tops from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s collection. Hornsby would not wear the number too long, however. He was released as a player and fired as a manager following a loss at Brooklyn on Aug. 2, 1932. At the time, the Cubs were five games behind Pittsburgh, leaders of the National League. Thanks, in part, to the direction of Charlie Grimm, Hornsby’s replacement as manager, and a 14-game winning streak, Chicago overtook the Pirates to win the pennant.

Uniform number distribution tended to vary by team, even back then. The Pittsburgh Pirates did not award any single-digit numbers until 1939, partly as a means of standardizing number distribution by one’s position. For example, outfielders would wear numbers in the teens, while pitchers wore numbers in the 40s and 50s.

Before uniform numbers, however, there was still a need to distinguish one player from another. Scorecards had pre-printed lineups and rosters, with numbers next to each player’s, manager’s, coach’s, and umpire’s name. These numbers were used on ballpark scoreboards to allow fans a way to determine who was at bat or who was umpiring third base. In one Boston Red Sox scorecard from the mid-1910s, Detroit manager Hughie Jennings is given a three-digit number! Though more research needs to be done, it is presently unclear as to why a manager received a three-digit number, much less any number at all.

It just goes to show that baseball is, has been, and will always be a numbers game.

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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