In Peaches & Pits this week, I mention one of my pet peeves: numbers on the backs of sports jerseys that are difficult to see. Being able to read the numbers makes it a lot easier for me to do my job as a sportswriter.
You may be wondering why the New York Yankees decided to put numbers on their uniforms starting in 1929. The original Yankee Stadium was huge, seating 67,000 people at a time when most ballparks didn’t even seat 30,000. Fans in the upper reaches of the stands (called the nosebleed seats) had a hard time telling who was on the field. Numbers on the uniforms made it easy to identify the players.
A while back, I wrote about the Deutsches Stadion (German Stadium), a facility that Adolf Hitler wanted to build near Nuremburg that would’ve seated 410,000. I read that fans in the upper reaches of the stands would be almost 300 feet above the field, and several hundred feet away from it. Those wouldn’t be nosebleed seats, they’d be oxygen tank seats. You’d need binoculars just to see the numbers on the uniforms, let alone see any of the action.
Did you ever wonder why Babe Ruth wore No. 3? That was because he usually batted third in the line-up. Lou Gehrig wore No. 4 because he usually batted fourth. It may surprise some people to hear Gehrig was in the clean-up spot. Ruth often said having Gehrig bat behind him did wonders for his offensive numbers as pitchers couldn’t pitch around him.
Babe Ruth wasn’t the only Yankee to wear No. 3. In 1935, his immediate successor in right field, George Selkirk, was assigned No. 3. Of course, he wasn’t the Babe, and the fans’ heckling constantly reminded him of that. After a time, the heckling stopped when the fans began to accept him for who he was. He was a fine hitter who was particularly dangerous with runners on base. His best year may have been 1939, when he hit 21 home runs, batted .306, and had 101 RBI.
Yanks’ Manager Joe McCarthy said he appreciated Selkirk’s positive attitude with the pressure he faced from replacing Ruth. He said Selkirk was one of the reasons, along with Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, Lefty Gomez and Bill Dickey, the Yankees won four pennants and four World Series between 1936 and 1939.
Selkirk was injury prone, and his career ended after the 1942 season. He missed most of four seasons with injuries. In nine years with the Yanks, he was 108-.290-576. He was named to the All-Star Team twice, and he had six RBI in the 1937 World Series. Not a bad record at all.
Numbers on uniforms might have kept at least one player from embarrassment. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Babe Herman became notorious for getting smacked on the head by fly balls, but it happened only once, and he wasn’t even on the field. What happened was a substitute had been sent in, but the sportswriters didn’t know about it. So, Herman got credit for the bonehead play.
Herman admitted he was once hit on the shoulder, but he said that didn’t count.
The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s were the first team to put numbers on the front of their uniforms, and Bill Veeck’s Chicago White Sox of the late 1950s were the first team to put names on the backs of the uniforms.
As I said before, numbers and names on uniforms serve an important function: making it easier for fans and others to recognize the players and know who’s on the field. When you can’t read the numbers, it defeats the purpose of having them on uniforms.
Maybe my problem is I have too much good sense.