The Evocative Power of Mere Cloth Numerals

By David Nevard, with Larry McCray

For me, Number Twenty-Two will always be Sammy White. Perhaps it's because I was just learning my numbers when Sammy was catching for the Boston Red Sox -- and I was just learning about baseball, the ultimate numbers game. Number 37 will always be Jimmy Piersall, Number 11 Frank Malzone, Number 4 Jackie Jensen.

And of course, Number 9 will always be Ted Williams. It has to be, since no one else has worn it, or ever will wear it. Ted was so well known by his number, that people would say, "Number 9 did that" or "That's where Number 9 hit one" and you knew it was Williams they were talking about. Number 9, .406, '41 -- a combo as recognizable in New England as Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, 1620.

There are numbers from more recent times, buried in my subconscious. Number 24 still evokes Dwight Evans, no matter who's wearing it now. Number 25 is Tony C.'s, and it hurt some people to see Jack Clark wearing it. They've given Number 26 away, but it still means Wade Boggs to me. And when I see a Red Sox player wearing Number 27, I see the ghost image of Carlton Fisk fleeting across the field in full catcher's gear.

Not long ago I received a message from Larry McCray, listing the Red Sox players who had worn each number the longest. His source was a master list on a Web site maintained by Keith Woolner http://www.best.com/~kwoolner/redsox/unifnum.txt. According to Woolner, the list had been posted "by JudyLocke (locke@ctron.com) based on data provided by Bill Walsh(bwalsh@mis.myers.com)." Who knows where Bill Walsh got the information...

The master list contains 1273 name-number combinations (some players wore more than one number) worn by Red Sox players since 1931, the first year they wore numbers. The list isn't 100% complete -- we discovered, for instance, that Dom DiMaggio wore Number 7 until he went off to war, but is not listed with any number after he returned in 1946. Still, the list is awe-inspiring.

First Numbers

The first baseball team to wear numbers was the Cleveland Indians in 1916 (on the sleeve). However, they abandoned the experiment, as did the Cardinals in 1923, so all the credit went to the Yankees, who wore numbers on their back in 1929. The Yanks numbered their players in batting order -- Ruth #3, Gehrig #4.

1931 was the first year Red Sox players wore numbers on their backs, but they didn't go along with the batting order scheme. #1 was Bill Sweeney, the first baseman. #2 was Bobby Reeves, a second baseman. #3 was Jack Rathrock, first base-outfield. #4 was second baseman Rabbitt Warstler. #5 was third baseman Otto Miller, and #6 was shortstop Hal Rhyne. The catchers wore 9-10-11, the outfielders wore 12 through 16. The pitchers wore numbers 20 and up, and the coaches were in the 30's.

Larry points out the lack of personal identification with uniform numbers in the early years. Between 1931 and 1932, only three guys kept the same numbers -- Charlie Barry kept #9, Tom Oliver kept #14, doppelbanger Earl Webb kept #15. Between 1932 and 1933, only one number avoided reassignment: #24 was retained by Bob Kline.

Traditions

As on all teams, infielders get low numbers, pitchers get high ones. Many Red Sox numbering traditions have survived to modern times. A string of second basemen wore #2: Mike Andrews, Doug Griffin, Jerry Remy. #10's first wearer was a catcher, Muddy Ruel. Bob Tillman, Bob Montgomery, and Rich Gedman wore it, as does this year's catcher, Scott Hatteburg. Almost every player to wear #21 has been a pitcher, from Danny MacFayden to Juan Marichal to the Rocket. Wendell Kim wears #31, as have nine other Red Sox coaches. Coach Grady Little wears #35 in the tradition of Billy Herman, Lee Stange, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Houk, and Joe Morgan.

First Base

Number 3 was the firstbaseman's number for 28 years. Except for WWII, the following were all initial sackers. (Runnels was a 2B who played 40-50 games at 1B every year, until 1961, when he became the regular 1B.)

Eddie Morgan 34

Jimmie Foxx 36-42

Tony Lupien 43

John Tobin 45

Rudy York 46-47

Jake Jones 47-48

Walt Dropo 49-52

Dick Gernert 53-54

Norm Zauchin 55-57

Pete Runnels 58-62

The spell was broken when CF Gary Geiger took #3 in 1963 -- because new 1B Dick Stuart wanted to wear Geiger's #7.

Retired Numbers

The Red Sox policy for retired numbers is "Hall of Fame player, ten years with the Red Sox". The Red Sox have four retired numbers: 1 (Bobby Doerr), 4 (Joe Cronin), 8 (Carl Yastrzemski) and 9 (Ted Williams). Only Yaz's and Ted's were actually "retired" in the sense that nobody wore the number after the guy who made it famous. On the other hand, #4 was given to Sam Mele as soon as Joe Cronin was done with it; more recent wearers included Jackie Jensen, Butch Hobson and the last #4, Carney Lansford. When #1 was retired, manager John McNamara had to take it off his back and change to #2.

Wade Boggs will qualify, but his numeral is being used right now by Aaron Sele. On the other hand, nobody wore Jim Rice's #14 between his retirement in '89 and his return as a coach in '95.

In case you're wondering Ed Sadowski warmed up #8 for Yaz, and Ben Chapman had the distinction of warming up #1 for Doerr and #9 for Ted.

Rookie Numbers

Numbers from 35 to 39 began appearing on Red Sox after World War II, numbers 40 to 44 came in around 1955. Numbers above 45 didn't arrive on the scene till the early 70's.

Traditionally, young players -- unless they are "phenoms" -- are assigned high numbers. We've all had the experience of watching a spring training game and wincing when a pitcher wearing #63 is brought in. "They must not think much of this guy." Only when a player has proven himself does he get one of the prestigious lower numbers.

Jody Reed started with #52, Jackie Jensen and Bob Tillman with#30, Butch Hobson with #51, Rico P and Sammy White with #38, Reggie Smith with #41, Billy Goodman with #28, Bob Montgomery with #39, Gedman with #50, Malzone with #43, Stapleton with #26, Marzano with #37, Evans with #40.

Larry wonders, "At some point, position players began to retain their 'rookie' numbers -- Greenwell, Boggs, Fisk -- perhaps the antiwar spirit erased the stigma associated with large numbers."

Among the Red Sox phenoms who never had to wear a high number were Yaz, Ted, and Rice -- and this year's #5, Nomar Garciaparra.

Identity Crisis

Over the years uniform numbers have become wrapped up with a ballplayer's identity. Players wear their number in gold jewelry, and when they change clubs, will pay a teammate to swap numbers. (As #21 Clemens did this year. But when #27 Carlton Fisk moved to Chicago, he reversed his number to 72.)

Dwight Evans wore #24 in honor of his favorite player, Willie Mays. Both Dave Henderson and Mo Vaughn have worn #42 in tribute to Jackie Robinson. John Valentin is one of the few Sox brave enough to wear #13; the only others were Reid Nichols and Billy Joe Robidoux.

Changing numbers may be a sign of versatility or instability; the following players wore at least four numbers during their Red Sox career: Lu Clinton, Billy Consolo, Ike Delock, Lou Finney, Fabian Gaffke, Billy Gardner, Dick Gernert, Tex Hughson, Leo Kiely, Sam Mele, Gary Roggenburk, Lee Stange, Broadway Charley Wagner, Billy Werber. Steve Lyons -- Psycho I, II, III and IV -- wore a different number during each tour of duty with the Sox: 12,7,19, and 30.

The All-time champion number changer, with 5, was Harry Dorish 1947-1963 (20,35,28,16,34). Harry had two different stints as a Red Sox pitcher, and one as a coach.

Unlucky 6

The first Sox player to wear #6 was, of course, a shortstop: Hal Rhyne, a 5'8" Californian who'd come over from Pittsburgh. Hal led the league in assists and fielding percentage in '31, but lasted only one more year with the Sox.

In 1933 the number went to William Henry "Bucky" Walters. Bucky was a young third baseman who played a total of 75 games for the BoSox, batting .244, before being sold to his home town Phillies in 1934. He must have had a great arm at third, because Philadelphia turned him into a pitcher! Pitching for Cincinnati, Bucky went on to lead the league in wins three times, and was the NL MVP in 1939. He ended up with 198 career victories. Put Bucky Walters in a special alcove of the Jeff Bagwell Room.

1936 shortstop-manager Joe Cronin took over #6, the only season he didn't wear his now-retired #4. Cronin was injured for much of the year, and the shortstop job went to Eric "Boob" McNair, a versatile infielder who had starred for Connie Mack. Some say that the slow-footed Cronin was jealous of the slicker-fielding McNair. Anyway, the team finished 6th, and Cronin ditched his unlucky number. The following year Joe was back at SS and McNair took over second base and #6.

In 1937 Boob McNair's wife died in childbirth and he blamed himself. He starting drinking heavily. He got hold of a revolver and went out on a high ledge of the team's hotel in Detroit, saying, "I'm going to kill Cronin." It took his teammates forty-five minutes to get him back inside. McNair's playing fell apart in '38 and he was traded to the ChiSox. McNair died a broken man in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, shortly before his 40th birthday.

In 1942 #6 was assigned to rookie shortstop Johnny (Paveskovich) Pesky. Johnny led the league in hits with 205, then went off to war. When he came back, #6 was returned to him, and he led the league in hits for two more years. However, Pesky won a plaque in the Bill Buckner Room for the play which ended the 1946 World Series -- as Enos Slaughter scored the winning run from first, Pesky "held the ball". Actually, he took a relay throw from center field, turned, and threw the ball, but the Boston press convinced a generation that Pesky had stood transfixed while Slaughter raced home. Pesky moved to third base in '48, and was traded in '52, but he came back as a manager-coach-interim manager-fungo hitter from 1961 to the present, wearing 22 and 35 before settling on his old #6. He is still haunted by Enos Slaughter's dash to the plate.

Pesky was traded to Detroit as part of a monumental deal that hurt both teams. Coming over from the Tigers was a steady shortstop named Johnny Lipon. Johnny donned Pesky's #6, and promptly turned into a has-been, batting .208 with the Red Sox and earning a quick trip to the St. Louis Browns.

In 1954 a rookie left-handed first baseman named Harry Agganis broke in with the Sox. Harry was a beloved high school and college football-baseball hero from Lynn, a role model for thousands of early-50's kids. He wore #6. After a mediocre first season, Harry was batting .313 when he checked into Sancta Maria hospital with pneumonia. The baseball world was shocked on June 27, 1955 when Harry Agganis died of a pulmonary thrombosis. He was 25 years old.

To show that baseball players aren't superstitious, Harry's number was not taken out of circulation. Instead, they made him the start of a new tradition -- #6 for left-handed first basemen. Mickey Vernon and Vic Wertz, who'd had their best years with Washington and Cleveland, succeeded Agganis. In the 60's came another southpaw first sacker, Lee "Mad Dog" Thomas, who survived to become general manager of the Phillies, the worst team in baseball.

The next wearer of #6 was shortstop Americo Peter Petrocelli of Brooklyn. Rico was an insecure young player who was persecuted by manager Billy Herman to the point where he almost quit baseball. Rico's fortunes improved when Dick Williams became manager; Petrocelli became an All-Star, and set a record for home runs by a shortstop. Like Johnny Pesky, Rico was moved from shortstop to third base in mid-career, and like Pesky he has stayed close to the Red Sox organization in various capacities -- announcer, Pawtucket manager, hitting instructor. After Rico retired, the next wearer of #6 was... Needlenose Johnny Pesky, in a coaching stint for Ralph Houk.

When Bill Buckner came to the Red Sox in 1984, he wore #16. John McNamara brought in a new set of coaches in '85, Pesky was out, and Billy Buck appropriated Needlenose's #6. In 1986 Buckner, like Rico Petrocelli in '67, caught the game-ending pop-up that launched a pennant celebration for the Red Sox. And then Buckner, like Pesky, became a World Series goat. Makes you wonder.

Infinity

Here is what Bill Lee wrote about Carl Yastrzemski's number in The Wrong Stuff:

"Yaz is blessed. I believe that is one of the reasons he has been able to play so well for so long. The other reason is his uniform number. Yaz wore number eight. I had noticed that, starting in 1975, Carl was taking catnaps in the trainer's room. With his uniform on. When laid on its side the number 8 resembles the symbol for infinity. That symbol was recharging Yaz's batteries. If he had just worn his uniform while he slept at night, I am convinced he could have played forever."

Go to Who Wore That Number the Longest?

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