Q: In what year did jersey numbers first appear on major league baseball jerseys? What team was the first one to use jersey numbers? And did Ty Cobb ever wear a jersey number during his playing days?
— Steven Manowitz, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: Some of the details concerning number usage are a little fuzzy, although the Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit Dressed to the Nines has filled in many of the blanks. The earliest documented instance of jersey numbers in baseball dates to 1907, when the minor league Reading Red Roses gave their players numbers to help fans identify them, although it’s unknown if the players ever wore them on the field.
The barnstorming Cuban Stars provide the earliest photographic evidence of jersey numbers in baseball history; a 1909 Chicago Daily News account included a photo of pitcher Jose Mendez wearing a 12 on his sleeve.
The first MLB team to take the field with jersey numbers was the Cleveland Indians, who wore numbers on their sleeves for the first time on June 26, 1916, although their experiment didn’t last long. In 1923, the Cardinals tried out jersey numbers on their sleeves at the insistence of innovative manager Branch Rickey, but the numbers were soon discarded. As Rickey later said, “Ridicule followed throughout the country, presswise and otherwise. More particularly, the players were subjected to field criticism from the stands and especially from opposing players.”
Numbers came to stay in 1929, when the Yankees and Indians both put numbers on the backs of their jerseys. Although the Yankees often get the credit, their opener was rained out, allowing the Indians to take the field first sporting the national pastime’s new sartorial standard. The Yankees took their famous jersey numbers from the batting order — Babe Ruth wore 3, Lou Gehrig 4, and so on.
You didn’t ask, but names first appeared on jersey backs thanks to another great innovator, White Sox executive Bill Veeck, who saw the value of player ID as the game entered the television age. He added names during spring training in 1960. Interestingly, the tradition-bound Yankees have never followed suit.
As for your final question — Cobb’s career ended in 1928, just before number usage came into fashion. Like many early Hall of Fame legends, the great Cobb never had a number retired, because he never wore one.
— Rob Doster, Senior Editor
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