Story by Mark Carlisle
The NCAA prohibits players from wearing the digits 6, 7, 8 or 9. Referees need to signal who a foul was on to the scorer’s table with their hands. Numerals above five make things unclear. For No. 6, the referee would hold up five fingers on one hand and one on the other, but that could be mistaken as No. 51.
You’ll notice that this rule does apply to the NBA as Kobe Bryant used to wear 8, Willis Reed wore 19 and Bill Russell, Julius Erving and Lebron James have all worn 6.
The NBA works around the hand-signaling problems by having referees flip their hands for larger numerals. For No. 17, the referee would hold up one finger on his right hand, which would be to the scorer’s left, for the first digit. With his left hand he would show five fingers with the back of his hand, then turn his hand to show two fingers.
The tradition persist though, as you’ll notice very few NBA players use numerals higher than 5.
It is unclear why the NCAA has not adopted the NBA’s hand-signaling techniques.
Players usually wear number no higher than 35. There are only 12 players on a team, so there’s enough numbers to go around. Some players will wear numbers in the 40s and 50s, but they are usually bigger post players. (Dirk Nowitzki wears No. 41, David Robsinson wore 50, Dikembe Mutombo wore 55.)
Likewise, smaller (6-foot-2 and under is small in the NBA) players most often wear single-digit numbers. (Chris Paul is No. 3, as was Allen Iverson. Jason Kidd wore No. 5. Gilbert Arenas started a trend of point guards wearing No. 0. Russell Westbrook, Damien Lillard and Jeff Teague have all followed suit.)
When players wear anything higher than 55, it’s usually in order to be unique, exhibited by the fact that Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace, two of the most unique basketball players ever, each wore numbers in the 90s at points in their careers.
In both the NBA and NCAA, teams can have either a 0 or 00, but can’t have both.
In the NBA, players can no longer change numbers midseason, unless they are changing teams. If a star is traded midseason, and his number is occupied on the team his is joining, that player is not allowed to vacate the number, if he were to choose to do so, until the off season.
There are very strict rules regarding number in football. Because there are so many players on the field, players’ numbers are classified by their position. That way, a player’s position can be more easily determined at a glance.
Quarterbacks, kickers, punters: 0-19
Running backs, defensive backs: 20-49
Wide receivers: 10-19, 80-89
Tight ends: 40-49, 80-89
Offensive line: 50-79
Defensive line: 50-79, 90-99
*Linebackers: 40-59, 90-99
*The 40s will be opened up to linebackers for the first time this coming season. Linebackers had complained that there weren’t enough numbers in the 50s and 90s to go around.
College has looser rules.
Quarterbacks, running backs: 1-49
Tight ends: 80-99
There are no rules for special teams or defensive players. Two players on the same team can wear the same number, but they are not allowed to play on the same down. In other words, one will play on offense while the other plays on defense.
Generally, the lowest numbers are the most prestigious and are worn by the best skill players. Quarterbacks almost never wear a number higher than the teens.
When Reggie Bush went to the NFL, he requested to wear No. 5, which he wore in college, but his request was denied. Bush opted for 25 instead.
There are no restrictions on uniform numbers in baseball, only traditions.
Pitchers usually wear between 20-59. They almost never wear single digits and only seldom do they wear numbers in the teens. When they do, it is usually the high teens. Numbers 1-14 are almost always worn by position players rather than players.
Pitcher David Wells wore No. 3 while on the Red Sox because Babe Ruth, his favorite player, wore 3. When Wells played for the Yankees, he wore 33 because 3 was retired for Ruth.
Most position players wear numbers in the 30s or lower. Middle infielders, who are usually smaller players, most often wear single-digit numbers.
In Japanese professional baseball, No. 18 is reserved to the ace of the pitching staff. Notable Japanese pitchers who have worn the number in the majors include Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda. Japan’s latest ace to join the big leagues, Masahiro Tanaka, wears 19, because when he joined the Yankees, Kuroda occupied 18.
Numbers 60 and above are usually only worn in spring training when players who might not make the team are given essentially a temporary number. Once players have secure a spot on the roster they usually move to a lower number, though some decide to stick with the number they came up with.
The numbers 0 and 00 are rarely worn, though are becoming more popular. In major-league history, 0 and 00 have only been worn by 15 and 20 players, respectively. Today one player wears 00, and three wear 0.
When jersey numbers were first invented, players wore numbers based on their position in the batting order, which is why Babe Ruth wore 3 and Lou Gehrig wore 4. That would be a lot harder in today’s game as batting orders are a much more fluid thing than they were then. In 2013, the Dodgers used a combination of 145 different batting orders over 162 games.
Once the Yankees retire Derek Jeter’s No. 2, they will have retired every single digit number. No. 8 is retired for two players, Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra.
The NHL’s only formal rule is that 0 and 00 were outlawed in the late 1990s. Each number was only ever worn by two players.
Historically, the starting goalie wore 1 while the backup wore 30. Skaters usually wore between 2 and 29. Now, many goalies still wear 1 or 30, and most of the rest wear either 29 or a number in the 30s.
In recent years, it has become more common for players to wear numbers above 30, largely because so many small numbers have been retired. Many players where their birth year or the year they were drafted, usually in the 80s or 90s.
It has become common to double a single-digit number if that number is unavailable. Wayne Gretzky, widely considered the greatest hockey player of all time, first wore 9 in honor of Gordie Howe. But when 9 was taken on his junior team, Gretzky chose 99, which is now retired throughout the NHL in Gretzky’s honor.
If the desired but unavailable number is two digits, many players will flip the digits.
Another technique players will use if they’re desired number is unavailable is swap a 1 with a 7 or vice-versa. This is a large reason why you see so many players in the 70s in the NHL today. The number they wanted in the teens was taken.
Originally, each position in soccer corresponded to a jersey number, starting with the keeper and growing outward.
1 – Goalkeeper
2 – Right fullback
3 – Left fullback
4 – Center back
5 – Center back
6 – Defending midfielder
7 – Right midfielder
8 – Central midfielder
9 – Striker
10 – Attacking midfielder
11 – Left midfielder
Most starting keepers still wear No. 1. Backup keepers often wear 12, which was the first player in the second line. Backups will also wear the last number on the roster, which differs based on the league and the era.
In international tournaments like the FIFA World Cup or continental cups, the 23 players on a team’s roster must wear numbers 1-23.
There has become a tradition of a team’s best player wearing No. 10. Most of today’s top players wear 10 in honor of players like Pele and Diego Maradona. Today’s youngsters likely wear it for players like Lionel Messi, Neymar and Landon Donavan. In the original alignment of positions to numbers, most teams used a 2-3-5 formation, but most teams today have transitioned to a 4-4-2 formation, making the 10 spot much more significant in the offense. In the former approach, 10 was one of five midfielders attacking downfield. In the 4-4-2 formation 10 and 9 are the only forwards, meaning they get most of the goals and most of the glory. This is why skilled players like Pele and Maradona were put at the 10, and why, given the goal-scoring opportunities, they gained such large fame.