by Matt DeLaere, Marketing #94
These days it’s hard to imagine watching a team sport without numbers to identify the players . Without jersey numbers we wouldn’t know who was doing what on the field, court, or ice. There would be no need for game programs, no jersey retirement ceremonies, and no replica jerseys. Player numbers have become so ingrained in sport that we need not mention names to talk about legends – basketball fans know who #23 is, #42 is retired by all Major League Baseball teams, George Costanza wanted to name his firstborn child “Seven” after a Yankees legend, and #99 needs no introduction to hockey fans (in case you’re not sure, the numbers belong to Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Wayne Gretzky, respectively).
Sports decorators out there know how important numbers are to amateurs, as well. In addition to identifying players for fans and officials, jersey numbers have become part of the uniform’s overall look. Whether teams are wearing simple one-color pre-cut numbers or soccer ball design full color digital number effects, the numerical identifiers are as much of a fashion statement as the team logo.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the early days of organized sports there were no jersey numbers.
The first big league baseball team to wear jersey numbers was the 1916 Cleveland Indians. The numbers weren’t on the front or back of the team’s jersey, but on the left sleeve. The numbers were worn only for a few weeks before being abandoned. In 1929 both the Indians and the New York Yankees wore numbers on the backs of their jerseys, a practice that caught on with every major league team by the mid-1930s.
There seems to be some dispute on the first use of jersey numbers in football. The Washington & Jefferson College football team is cited by the NCAA as the first team to wear numbered jerseys, on September 19, 1908. The University of Pittsburgh, though, claims that they were the first team to wear numbered jerseys, also in 1908.
The first professional hockey league to require numbers on players’ sweaters was the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) in 1912. While the league itself was defunct by 1924, its echoes are still heard today – the Portland Rosebuds were sold to the NHL and used to form the Chicago Blackhawks, while the Victoria Cougars live on as the Detroit Red Wings.
Meanwhile soccer has its own unique number history. Player numbers were used as far back as the 1920s in the United States and England, but until fairly recently numbers were assigned to player positions, with 1-11 being used for the starting lineup. If a player played at center forward in one game, he was number 9; if he was right fullback in the next match, he wore number 2. This system was in place in international play until 1954 and in England and Italy until the 1990s. In most leagues today a player retains a unique number regardless of his position in any given game.
So, next time you’re using your heat press to customize a team’s jerseys with numbers, remember that 100 years ago there were no uniform numbers – and think of what an anonymous world that must have been.