#GoingDeep: The Forgotten History of Numbering Players
How is that possible? The answer lies in a long-forgotten chapter in the history of numbering baseball players.
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Forty-five years before Barrow made his historic proclamation, an unnamed individual suggested to James Hart, president of the National League Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), that his baseball players don uniform numbers. Hart endorsed the idea, which was detailed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Dec. 29, 1894:
Every one who has attended a ball game knows how puzzled one occasionally gets in endeavoring to recognize some player or trying to locate a man who is on the team, but whose position has been changed from that signified on the score-card. The plan suggested to Mr. Hart is very simple. It is for every man on the team to have a separate number, which he shall keep throughout the season. … On the score-cards, the names of the players, with their numbers, shall be printed; and in this way the spectator can readily identify any player on the field.
The proposed scheme was not new in the realm of sports. In horse racing, the practice of placing numbers on jockey silks began in the mid-1850s, if not earlier. Calls to have American football players don numbers started in the early 1880s. By the time of the baseball proposal, pinned numerals adorned the sleeves or backs of polo players and bicycle racers. But for baseball, talk was cheap and the National Pastime resisted the fan-friendly innovation.
Red Sox scorecards from Fenway Park’s inaugural 1912 season included this simple explanation of the system: “Follow the electric Score Board for changes—Every player has a Number as indicated.”
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, this method of numbering players and selling scorecards proved successful, and yet teams still discussed and experimented with the more direct method of affixing numerals to uniforms. Baseball clubs such as the Cuban Stars in 1909, the Cleveland Indians in 1916, and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1923 dabbled in donning numbered jerseys, but it was not until 1929 that the practice of placing numerals on the backs of team shirts truly took hold. That season the Indians and Yankees introduced the now-familiar tradition and within a few years every major league club followed. Scorecards and scoreboards were still equipped to assist fans in identifying players by numbers, but now the players’ uniforms also helped out.
Today, the fan – in the stands, watching on television, or streaming on their smart phone – has numerous ways to keep track of who’s who on the diamond. Scoreboards, scorecards and digital devices use not just player numbers, but player names, images, video and audio. But few recall that just a decade into the 20th century, when ballpark vendors cried “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” they really meant it.
Tom Shieber is the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum; the research for this article was done in close collaboration with Cassidy Lent, Library Director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum