During a recent round-up of wire service photos, I linked to this photo of Rollie Hemsley and had this to say about it: “I’ve always thought there’s something a bit off about a manager who insists on wearing No. 1. Like, if you need a uni number to tell people you’re at the top of the food chain, you probably don’t belong there in the first place. And if you also need a big-ass chair with No. 1 painted on it, maybe you should just take your Napoleon Complex and go home.”
That prompted reader Randy Miller to post the following comment: “The Reds were one of the teams that followed the (Frick? Chandler? Giles?) numbering system back in the 1950s and 1960s, with the infielders wearing 10s, outfielders wearing 20s, etc. — and the manager wearing 1 and the coaches 2 through 5.”
That was news to me. I mean, I knew various uni-numerical protocols had developed over the years, but I’d never heard of a specific system being set out, so I asked Randy if he could elaborate further. He gladly obliged, as follows:
I haven’t been able to find a direct link to a specific edict from [former N.L. president Warren] Giles on uniform numbering — perhaps there’s some evidence in the library at Cooperstown. But based on the rosters in the National League, I do have some clear deductions that I think indicate what probably happened.
Before being named National League president, Giles was general manager of the Reds from 1937 through 1951. In 1938, his second year, the Reds drastically altered their numbering system by issuing jerseys numbered consecutively from 35 (Ernie Lombardi) through 67 (coach Edd Roush). Johnny Vander Meer threw his consecutive no-hitters wearing 57 during this season. This consecutive numbering concept was used by a few football and many basketball teams of the time — many of the Uni Watch photo galleries from this era and into the early ’50s show this pattern. [I double-checked this, and sure enough, the lowest uni number on the Reds' 1938 roster was 35! An amazing detail I'd never known about. -- PL]
The following year, 1939, the Reds adopted what we can call the Giles system: Manager Bill McKechnie wore No. 1; since teams had only two coaches in those days, Hank Gowdy wore 2 and Jimmie Wilson wore 3. Next came the catchers, who were assigned single-digit numbers (Lombardi went from 35 to 4). Infielders wore numbers in the 10s, outfielders in the 20s, and pitchers 30 on up (Vander Meer now wore 33.) The Reds would keep this uniform system into the 1960s, with a few changes here and there. The managers and coaches wore numbers in the 50s for four years before Birdie Tebbetts reclaimed No. 1 in 1954, for example. Reds managers continued to wear 1 until Fred Hutchinson died of cancer and the team retired it in his honor.
I’ve read that Giles sought to standardize the National League’s numbering when he was league president. If so, he wasn’t very successful. One guy who did follow the system was Leo Durocher, whose New York Giants would follow the Giles pattern, as would his Cubbies in the ’60s. The Cubs had already followed a modified version of the Giles system prior to Durocher’s arrival, with their College of Coaches wearing numbers in the 50s and 60s but the players following along in the classic Giles manner.
Giles was instrumental in bringing baseball to Houston, and the original Colt .45s followed his system to a T. The other 1962 expansion team, the Mets — with Casey Stengel wearing 37 and original team MVP Richie Ashburn wearing his familiar 1 — did not.
Probably the most enduring aspect of the Giles system was idea of giving managers and coaches low numbers. Pittsburgh’s manager Billy Meyer wore No. 1 before it was retired for him, and subsequent managers Fred Haney and Bobby Bragan wore No. 2. The Phillies spent about 20 years with Gene Mauch, Bob Skinner, Frank Lucchesi, and Danny Ozark wearing low numbers (4, 1, 1, and 3, respectively), with most of their coaches wearing single digits as well. Braves coaches wore low numbers even if Eddie Mathews (41) and Hank Aaron (44) didn’t fit the pattern.
The American League mostly avoided the Giles system, though Tebbetts brought it over to Cleveland in the mid-1960s. A couple of A.L. teams were better known for assigning coaches higher numbers: Red Sox coaches wore the low 30s for years and the Twins assigned their coaches consecutive numbers in the 40s.
There have been other systems, of course. The Yankees assigned their original numbers based on the batting order (helping to consign pitchers to double-digit jerseys), and Pittsburgh originally gave its outfielders the 10s, infielders the 20s, catchers 30-32, the manager 33, and coaches 34-36, with pitchers getting 40 on up.
But no system ever seemed to work perfectly, even for the Reds. Players got traded and there usually wasn’t a surplus of extra uniforms sitting around, so new acquired players had to wear whatever was available. Robin Roberts famously wore 36 because he came up to replace Nick Strincevich, who told him “I hope 36 brings you better luck than it brought me.” Tony Perez came up at a time when most of the infielder numbers were previously assigned, so he was given 24. Sparky Anderson wound up with 10 in Cincinnati after the 1 jersey was retired, and after that the system seemed to erode.
That, my friends, is one serious tutorial. And aside from the Yankees’ original batting-order system, I knew nothing about any of this (maybe because the team I follow has never had a specific uni-numerical system).
A few thoughts:
• I’d never really thought about this before, but a single-digitized pitching coach seems as incongruous to me as a single-digitized pitcher. But I guess it was common on certain teams.
• It’s fascinating to learn that the two leagues took distinct approaches to uni numbers. Just another aspect of the separate league identities that no longer exist. A pity.
• One thing Randy’s treatise hinted at but didn’t explicitly mention: Numbering systems no doubt became less and less practical as teams began retiring numbers.
I don’t know about you, but this is precisely the sort of baseball geek-o-rama topic I need to help tide me over until pitchers and catchers. Major thanks to Randy for the excellent history lesson.
Uni Watch News Ticker: As expected, Virginia Tech wore orange helmets for the Orange Bowl, which mainly made them look like Syracuse. According to a thread on the Chris Creamer board, this was the fifth different helmet they wore this season, the others being maroon, black, white, and white with striping. … Meanwhile, Stanford’s Shayne Skov got a little carried away with the eye-black. … Oooh, check out this 1950s Milwaukee Braves usher’s jacket. … Major junior hockey note from Brad Smith, who writes: “The Halifax Mooseheads and the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL brand their holiday home-and-home as the Battle of Nova Scotia. They sport jerseys based on the Nova Scotia flag, with Cape Breton wearing white (the official flag design) and Halifax wearing the inverse.” … “Wish I could see the inside of this coloring book,” says Mike Hersh. Me, too. … Here’s SMU’s BFBS helmet, which will presumably be paired with the new black jersey the next time they want to
“honor” Army sell some black merch (with thanks to Ryan Allison). … Ben Gorbaty notes that Marc-Andre Fleury’s Winter Classic mask was actually a tribute to Michel Dion’s 1980s mask. … Totally loving this old Giants practice shirt (Mike Hersh again). … I confess that I don’t really know what the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game is, which is just as well, because the uniforms are bloody hideous. Further photos here. … Good catch by Joe Lombardo, who spotted Boomer Esiason wearing a No. 10 jacket over his No. 7 jersey. … Fascinating soccer note from Chris Cruz, who writes: “In a game against Chelsea, Ashley Young of Aston Villa wore long undersleeves that hooked around his thumbs so they wouldn’t ride up.” … A U.S. Senator is calling for an investigation into potentially deceptive football helmet safety claims. … Day-Glo Conspiracy update: If you click ahead to the ninth photo in this slideshow, you’ll see that Oregon is apparently planning to wear neon-highlighter knee braces next week (big thanks to Kane Bickford). … Here’s a stunner: Those PowerBalance wristbands don’t actually enhance performance. Next they’ll be telling us that Phiten necklaces don’t work and that there’s no Santy Claus.