As the saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. That was especially true in the days before player uniforms had numbers on them. On this day in 1929, the Yankees became the first team to number their jerseys.
Numbers on a player’s jersey are such an obvious idea that it is difficult to imagine sports without them. Even for those teams that do not use a player’s name, having those jersey numbers makes it a lot easier to know who is on the field at any time. Over time, numbers have become synonymous with certain players, like Jackie Robinson and the number 42.
However, numbers on a jersey were not immediately used. In fact, it took until this day in 1929 before the New York Yankees came up with the idea of making the players easier to identify in Major League Baseball. In this case, the jerseys would be numbered based on the player’s spot in the batting order, with Babe Ruth wearing number three and Lou Gehrig wearing the number four.
This idea caught on quickly. Within a few weeks, the Cleveland Indians announced that they would follow suit. By 1931, all American League teams had put numbers on their jerseys. Meanwhile, it took the National League until 1933 before every team there would do the same.
It was not the first time that baseball players had numbered jerseys however. Back in 1912, the Pacific Coast League had uniform numbers, but abandoned the idea at the end of the season. It would take close to twenty more years before they returned to the league.
At times, it is amazing how long it takes a simple concept to come into being. Prior to jersey numbers, it was difficult for even the most ardent fans to be able to distinguish various players apart on the field, as they would have to trust to their knowledge of the positions and hope to be able to hear the announcers. Jersey numbers made it much easier for fans to know who was on the field at any point in time.
Having a number retired has become one of the top honors in the game. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Yankees, who introduced the idea to the Majors, would have the most retired numbers. Of course, at the rate they have been going, one has to wonder how long it will be until we get to hear “Now batting for New York, number 100….”