This article appears in the June 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
"I thought I'd look good in a teen, but 14, 15 and 17 didn't feel right. And the way you feel is the way you play. If you look good on the field, you play good."
-SANTONIO HOLMES 10, STEELERS
Back when The Magazine was new, there was a Ping-Pong table in one of the empty conference rooms. A couple of clearly overworked young editors took to playing a regular lunchtime game, but rather than keeping score in numerals -- say, 10 serving 8 -- they used athletes' uniform numbers instead. As in Pelé serving Berra. (If the score was tied, one player -- Larry Bird or Hank Aaron -- sufficed.) If the server couldn't come up with an appropriate name, he lost serve, and once a player's number was used for the leader's score, it couldn't be repeated when the other guy caught up. This all made for minutes of fun, and those young wordsmiths were convinced that their brainchild would soon sweep the nation. (It might have, too, if only they had had better representation.)
Slightly more than a decade later, the Ping-Pong table is gone, but the editors remain. And like many of their sports-crazed brethren throughout this country, they continue to be captivated by the cult and culture of uniform numbers. Any fanatic worth his face paint can count from double 0's to double 9's using jocks instead of cardinals. (That's Jim Otto to Wayne Gretzky, if you're scoring at home.) What began (more recently than you might think) as a way for fans and reporters to easily identify players on the field is now the fundamental way fans connect with athletes, not to mention the way many jocks identify themselves. From the clubhouse to the bleachers, season after season, numbers are the ties that bind. This is their story.
"Everyone thinks I wore 0 because my last name begins with an O. Truth is, when I got traded to Texas I was heading to a new league, and I wanted to start fresh. Zero is a good starting point."
-AL OLIVER 0, FORMER MAJOR LEAGUER
While racehorses in Australia were wearing numbered saddlecloths as early as 1887, human competitors took a few more years to catch on. (Some sources say the Cincinnati Red Stockings donned digits in 1883, but if so, it appears to have been a short-lived experiment.) The Baseball Hall of Fame credits Alfred Lawson, manager of the Atlantic League's Reading (Pa.) Red Roses, as the first to give jersey numbers a whirl, in 1907. Lawson was looking to "personalize" his charges for fans in the stands, and before long, everyone was hopping on the integer express. In 1908, Washington & Jefferson fielded the first college football team to wear numbers. College hoops followed suit in 1915. The NHL debuted two years later with its players similarly marked. In 1920, the NFL came out of the gate sporting numbers, and by 1932 all 16 MLB teams had gone digital. The NBA, then known as the BAA, took the leap when it started in 1946.
At first, uni numbers were strictly utilitarian, no more than a confirmation that yes, the wearer played sports and, more often than not, that he performed a specific duty within the game. In baseball, uniform numbers corresponded to batting order: Ruth 3, Gehrig 4, Meusel 5. In hockey and football, position was the dictator: goalies wore 1, wide receivers sported 80 to 89. On the hardwood, things were less, um, uniform, though numbers were often kept between 0 and 5, either as single digits or in two-digit combinations, so refs could indicate fouls with the fingers of one hand. (The NBA never held to this custom.)
"I love Allen Iverson, but I couldn't get No. 3 because Nicole Ohlde had it. My rookie paycheck was $3,500 every two weeks, so I wasn't about to buy it from her. Good thing I also love Scottie Pippen."
-SEIMONE AUGUSTUS 33, MINNESOTA LYNX
Although old-school habits die hard -- baseball's blue chippers often covet low numbers, many current goalies often wear 1, and the NFL still dishes by position -- numbers are now as much a part of the player as a part of the game. It is a transformation that likely began on Valentine's Day 1934, the day Toronto Maple Leafs wing Irvine "Ace" Bailey became the first pro athlete to have his number retired. (He wore 6, by the way.)
More than 75 years and hundreds of retired jerseys later, numerals often make the man or woman. And although math is a universal language -- a 4 is 4 in Florida, France and Fiji -- the story behind a particular player's particular digit is more art than science.
"My mother wore 13, and it was my favorite too, but when the Jazz signed John Amaechi, he wanted 13. My teammate Quincy Lewis suggested 47 because of my initials, and I liked it right away. Later, I learned my hometown of Izhevsk is where the AK-47 was first made."
-ANDREI KIRILENKO 47, JAZZ
When you think about it, or talk to people who are paid to think about it, it was inevitable that players would become protective of what might have once been an arbitrary offering. "There's a large amount of cultural association with numbers," says Harvard neurologist David Urion. For most European-derived people, for example, 7 is considered lucky, and the mere mention of the number produces a measurably positive response in the parietal association cortex of the brain. To create the same cerebral activity in someone from China, you're going to want to go with 8, because the Chinese word for 8 (ba) is similar to the word for wealth (fa). Thirteen may be taboo in the States, but if you want to spook someone in East Asia go with 4 (si), which sounds like the word for death (also si, but with a slightly different pronunciation). Good to know, if you're hooping it up in Macau. But in the end, jersey associations are much more personal. To your favorite player, a birth date, street address or Little League number still holds the real magic.
"The 80s are too boxy. I'm 220-something pounds, but 1's make me look slim. Plus, when it comes to autographs, 11 is the easiest to write."
-ROY WILLIAMS 11, COWBOYS
And even the best pro athletes can use all the help they can get. "When the stakes are high, and you can't control the outcome, anxiety results," says Stuart Vyse, a psychology professor at Connecticut College who specializes in superstition. Few vocations have less controllable outcomes -- or higher financial stakes -- than pro sports. Take baseball. In what other job can a six-digit contract become a nine-digit one if an employee is only 10% more effective than his peers? No wonder baseball is the most superstition-filled game. But in all four major sports, not to mention many less-than-major ones, you'll find jocks who eat the same thing before every game or listen to the same music or utter the same prayer. The mother of all mojomakers, though, is the one that involves slipping on the same number, day after day, week after week, year after year.
"Guys are so superstitious. It messes them up if they can't get the same number. That's why my dad used to make me change numbers each year -- so I wouldn't get attached."
-MATHIEU SCHNEIDER 24, CANADIENS
Superstition has surrounded uniform numbers ever since … well, ever since there were uniform numbers. In 1907, when Lawson ordered those jerseys for his 14-man Red Roses roster, he chose 1 through 12, plus 14 and 15, skipping 13 altogether. That kind of caution often still remains, but much more has changed in the years since. The evolution of uni number from identifier to identity now has less to do with the numbers themselves than with the letters above them.
In the spring of 1960, the White Sox were the first major pro sports team to stitch players' names onto their backs. "Something as trivial as a number becomes part of the self if it's associated with us, even briefly," explains Brett Pelham, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo. In 2004, Pelham published a study in which he presented test subjects with various numbers, including some that were briefly, for about a hundredth of a second, paired with the subject's own name. The subjects were then shown pictures of people wearing various numbered jerseys. Pelham found a subject was more likely to be attracted to a person who was wearing the number that had been linked to his or her name. If seeing a number paired with your name even momentarily can have that kind of effect, imagine what seeing it paired with your moniker for a decade can do.
"I wore 19 in the CBA because it's my birthday, but when I first came into the NBA I got 11. It wasn't until I switched back that the abilities I'd shown in the minors returned. That number definitely gave me confidence."
-RAJA BELL 19, BOBCATS
The bond between athlete and number strengthens over time. As a rookie, Torii Hunter's number made him feel like a prison inmate. "They didn't call me by name," says the Angels outfielder, who has worn 48 for all of his 13-year MLB career. "They just said, '48, do this; 48, do that.' " Two All-Star Games and eight Gold Gloves later, the centerfielder's digits grace his e-mail address, most of his Internet passwords, even the inside pocket of his tailor-made suit. Blues forward Paul Kariya has worn 9 his entire career not because hockey legends Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe wore it, but because it was randomly assigned to him during his freshman year in college. Still, 17 years later, donning that 9 is as much a part of his game-day routine as the orange Gatorade and strawberry Pop-Tarts he never fails to eat before heading to work.
"Coming out of Harvard, I never thought I would play professional football, so I had 50, my old college number, tattooed on my left calf. Turns out that wasn't such a good idea."
-MATT BIRK 77, RAVENS
In the modern sports marketplace, where players drift from team to team and fans aren't fans unless they're sporting officially licensed boxer briefs, a player's number is his logo. "It's a way for an athlete to own some consistency in his brand," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. Today, thanks to free agency and MJ, a uniform number is practically an alias. CP3. Ochocinco. Agent Zero. Funny thing is, as integer-obsessed as the athletes are, the powers that be claim they don't give a hoot who wears what. "As long as they comply with our numbering system," says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, "we're fine with whatever number they choose." Which isn't to say leagues don't have a vested interest.
"I wore 3 in college, but when I first came here, Jon Kitna had it and wanted to sell it to me for 10 grand. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' So I just took what they gave me. I'm not superstitious, but I wouldn't mind going back to 3. I like the way it looks."
-CARSON PALMER 9, BENGALS
Remember when Kobe switched from 8 to 24 in 2006? You could argue he was simply following the orders of his marketing folks, who wanted to rebrand their superstar following those ugly sexual assault charges. Or you could believe what Kobe himself said about wanting to go back to his old high school number. But talk to insiders, and you hear a third -- and quite simple -- explanation. Says one agent: "He changed because everybody already had his jersey." Consider that last year in the United States, jersey sales from the four major sports generated a seam-bursting $4 billion, according to analyst Matt Powell of Sports One Source. Of that, the largest chunk, roughly a billion and a half, comes from the NBA. It so happens that in 2005-06, the Lakers' No. 8 jersey was the league's fourth-highest seller. The following year, their No. 24 was the most popular. A three-spot leap may not sound like much, but according to Powell, the difference between first and fourth on the best-seller list is roughly two million units. At an average retail price of $45, that's a $90 million swing. The typical licensing deal gives the league roughly 5%, so Kobe's makeover netted his league nearly $5 million. In today's post-Ace Bailey, post-1960 Chisox, post-Jordan world, the numbers on a jock's jersey are in many ways more vital than the numbers on his Social Security card. And tax brackets notwithstanding, they're certainly more valuable.
"When I got traded to Florida, they gave me 9 and we won the World Series. It's been my identity ever since. I'm borderline obsessed. I even collect other 9 jerseys. I've got Carson Palmer, Tom Zbikowski, Brady Anderson, Maurice Richard, Drew Brees and Roy Hobbs."
-GREGG ZAUN 9, ORIOLES
But it is a new millennium, and many of tomorrow's stars will tell you that their number means nothing to them. Back in February 2008, when Cubs prospect Jeff Samardzija was rocking a team-issued 50 for the second spring training in a row, the equipment manager asked what number he'd like if he made the bigs. Doesn't matter, the young righthander said. Something in the high 20s would be nice. In late July, when Samardzija stood on the mound in Wrigley for his major league debut, he was focused only on holding the Cubs 2-1 lead and not at all on the big, blue 29 on his back. About a week later, when a reporter asked him about it, Samardzija's position was unchanged. "It's just not part of my identity," he said. With that, he strolled over to a table in the middle of the clubhouse, where a staffer had laid out two of his spring training jerseys -- with the old number 50 on them -- for him to sign. The rook promptly picked up a silver sharpie and scribbled:
"I've been wearing it ever since freshman year of high school. If I wore another number, I wouldn't play as well. I've done it in practice a few times, and I stunk. I know it's all in my head, but that number is special to me."
-DARRELL ARTHUR 00, GRIZZLIES
Eddie Matz is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.