Babe Ruth in his first year wearing #3, 1929
Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, April 18, 1929. And if you look close (or click the photo to see the larger version), something is unusual about the players in this photo. A sharp eye reveals that the hometown Yankees have numbers on their backs (with Gehrig’s #4 at first base most prominent), while the visiting Red Sox do not. As it turns out, this is the first year (and the first game) that the Yankees introduced numbers to their already iconic uniforms.
As the article below states, “There is never anything half measure about the way Colonel Ruppert does things. When he built the Stadium he gave baseball the biggest arena of its kind in the world. And when he decided to number his players he got them the largest numerals that money could buy and still fit on a baseball uniform. The numbers proved an unqualified success. They are clearly discernible to the naked eye.”
Actually, Ruppert wasn’t entirely original in this idea. At the beginning of the 20th century, a few minor league and traveling/barnstorming teams experimented with numbers, but on the players’ sleeves. The first major league team to try the idea was the 1916 Cleveland Indians, who did it for a few weeks in mid-season, and again for a short time in 1917, but was quickly abandoned.
Later, the 1923 St. Louis Cardinals gave it a try, but, per Wiki, as then-manager Branch Rickey recalled, the Cardinals’ players were “subjected to field criticism from the stands and especially from opposing players,” so the numbers were removed.
Also, the aforementioned Indians had also planned to introduce numbers on uniform backs for the 1929 season, and both teams were scheduled to open their seasons on the same day, April 16, but the Yankees were rained out, so the Indians have the honor of playing the first MLB game with proper uniform numbers. The Yankees couldn’t introduce their soon-to-be-legendary digits until April 18 (above). And as the only two teams wearing them, the first game featuring numbers on every player was the first meeting of the Indians and Yankees that year, on May 13 (in Cleveland, at League Park).
What would have been interesting is to see one team on the field with numbers, and one without. And one can just imagine the fans seeing the numbers for the first time and the interesting chatter in the stands that day; some undoubtedly decrying the modernization of the game (“they look like racehorses out there”) while others marveling at how easy it is to tell who’s who now. I wouldn’t doubt that the numbers allowed more casual fans to become more involved in the games.
As most fans know, interestingly, the Yankees were intially numbered according to their spot in the batting order on that first game in 1929 (except for the pitcher), as follows:
Combs cf #1
Koenig 3b #2
Ruth rf #3 (of course)
Gehrig 1b #4 (of course)
Meusel lf #5
Lazzeri 2b #6
Durocher ss #7 (yes, Leo Durocher was the Yankees SS in 1929!)
Grabowksi c #8
The remainder of the roster was apparently numbered as follows: The other two catchers were assigned #9 and #10, #11 through #21 were assigned to pitchers (except unlucky #13 wasn’t used), and #22 through #28 given to the remaining position players, then #29 and up assigned to coaches (manager Miller Huggins did not wear a number, but when he died suddenly in late 1929, coach Art Fletcher, #34, took over as manager and was then the first Yankee manager to have a number – good trivia question – stump your friends! Of course, this number system was too rigid to follow through the course of a season, and with pitchers going down or being released, new position players would take numbers in the 20’s, etc.
Times article from Opening Day 1929
Turns out numbered uniforms proved to be very popular indeed, with all teams having numbers by the 1930’s, including road uniforms, and now old baseball photos of uniforms without numbers look very unusual in modern times.
The Times itself had the understatement of all time in the article above: “In the event any one needs the information, Babe Ruth is No. 3. It is now expected he will make “3” as famous as the “77” Red Grange wore at Illinois.” Dare I say, Mr. Ruth’s #3 may be even a bit more famous than Mr. Grange’s #77 by now.