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Baseball Jersey Numbers

May 27, 2022

Everyone nowadays can recognize a baseball jersey by the numbers on the back.

But how did the tradition come to be?  As strange as it might sound today, putting numbers on the backs of jerseys used to be a topic of hot debate. Both team owners and players were initially against them, seeing the numbers as both unprofessional and excessive (not to mention expensive, with each having to be carefully sew on to every player’s uniform, or even swapped around).  In spite of that, the numbers were popular with fans. Their meaning shifted over time, sometimes corresponding to players’ names on scorecards, sometimes being based on batting order—for example, Babe Ruth always hit third, so he was number 3—but they always provided fans a way to easily identify players out on the field.  And now, a century later, a jersey without a number would be a bizarre sight. But who was the first team to start the trend? Initially, both the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals experimented with jersey numbers on their sleeves, but never committed for more than a few games. And in 1929, the Indians and the New York Yankees were the first to move the numbers to their uniform backs.  Surprise twist, though: only one team was officially the first to start the trend. The Yankees were rained out on opening day! So although both teams started out of the gate with jersey numbers on their back, only one team made it to play, making the Cleveland Indians the official trailblazers of the tradition.

Tagged: Baseball, MLB