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Uniform digits tell a unique story

By the Numbers

Carlie McNiff, Sports Editor

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Two of the most popular sports numbers of all time are probably 23 and 42, but how did sports get to the point where these numbers were bestowed on Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson?

The origin of numbers has been traced back to a 1911 Australian rules football match in Sydney by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, an organization of football historians.

Stateside, the NFL has had uniform numbers since it was established in 1920. Through the 1940s, teams could number their players however they desired. When the All-America Football Conference merged with the NFL in 1950, a mandatory system of assigning uniform numbers by positions was forced.

For example, the numbers 1-9 are assigned to quarterbacks, kickers, and punters while the numbers 60-79 are assigned to offensive and defensive linemen.

Compared to the NFL, a more flexible numbering system is used in high-school and college football. However, players often wear numbers that correspond with those of the NFL.

Baseball also brought uniform numbers into its system early on.

The Cleveland Indians brought uniform numbers into the MLB in 1916 with uniform numbers on their sleeves but stopped after two seasons.

Numbers returned to MLB in 1923 when the St. Louis Cardinals wore them on their sleeves. Cardinals’ players were criticized by fans and opposing players, so the numbers were removed.

The Indians were the first MLB team to wear uniform numbers on their backs in 1929. The New York Yankees followed two days later. By the 1930s, all MLB teams wore numbers on the backs of their uniforms.

The original baseball numbers were based on the lineup. The starting players were numbered 1-8, the backup catcher was number 9, and the pitchers were numbers 10-14 (not 13 because that was superstitious).

The numbering system for baseball has changed, and today’s teams do not assign numbers based on any system.

Historically, in the NHL, starting goaltenders wore number 1. Popular belief holds that this was because the goaltender was the first player on the rink from the perspective of one standing in front of the net.

In the NBA, players have always worn numbers. Basketball leagues at all levels in the U.S. traditionally use single and double digits between 0 and 5.

Retiring an athlete’s number is an honor a team grants a player usually after the player has left the team, retired from the game, or died.

The first jersey number to be retired in professional sports was that of an NHL player: Ace Bailey, whose No. 6 was retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1934 following a career-ending fight.

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