Last week Brandon Phillips discussed his old jersey number getting reissued with the Reds, to which Scooter Gennett followed with a tying a major league record. Then, on Monday Jeff Francoeur made his broadcasting debut. On top of all that, Dansby Swanson‘s struggles continue.
With all of these storylines occurring congruently, it got me thinking about
Last night, Scooter Gennett ripped four homeruns into the Great American Ballpark bleachers wearing #4 for the Cincinnati Reds. Four four-baggers wearing the number four that an old number four took issue with. You can’t make this stuff up if you tried.
Telling members of the media over the weekend, Phillips said, “I became a man in Cincinnati. I love being in Atlanta, but I won’t lie say I don’t miss being a Red Leg. I still run this city … still can’t believe somebody is wearing my No. 4.”
Continuing to tell some of the old beat reporters he grew familiar with over his 11 season in Cincy, “That’s kind of a slap in the face, too. But it is what it is. People have their own opinions, and I have mine.”
Regardless of whether or not you think the Reds slighted a franchise great in Phillips by distributing “his” number to a utility guy that was picked up off the waiver wire or whether or not it had any effect in Gennet’s at bats Tuesday night, it opens the conversation on baseball numbers once again, so let’s dive.
But baseball jersey numbers are more intriguing than just about any other sport. They’re more than just a number. Most players and pundits will tell you that the myths related to certain numbers causing superstitious results or emotional attachments is for the birds.
Consider me a bird.
In professional football, there’s a number code assigned to positions. You never see interesting numbers on players, and they usually don’t mean much since numbers are so similar across the board.
In basketball the only number that garners any attention is 23. That’s for two reasons. The original 23 and the other 23 that’s chasing original 23’s legacy. And for that matter, 99 is the number that matters most in hockey because of “the Great One.”
Same goes for soccer, the only number that really gets attention is which player wears 10 cause that’s the guy on the pitch that’s the guy most likely to put balls in the back of the net.
Then there’s baseball. The sport which jersey numbers matter way too much, regardless of whether or not the players care to admit.
Two numbers stand out to me the most in baseball. The one retired by the entire league out of respect for what he’s done in the league and in the civil rights movement, Jackie Robinson’s 42. And Mickey Mantle’s 7.
Jersey numbers in baseball appeared and disappeared on several different occasions from the late 1800s until their official use in 1929. While the Yankees were the first to officially declare the use of jersey numbers, because their opening day game in 1929 was rained out, the Cleveland Indians took the 1st place in medal in debuting them on a major league field.
The Yankees numbered their players according to their lineup card, which is why Babe Ruth wore number 3 and Lou Gehrig, behind him in the lineup, took 4. In Yogi Berra’s major league debut, although catchers traditional wore 9, Berra batted eighth and is why his number 8 hangs in Yankee Stadium’s monument park. The Yankees are the prime culprit to blame for jersey numbers mattering in baseball.
After handing the “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, number 5 in 1936 even though he batted third before Gehrig on the lineup card, the organization put an emphasis on talent related to numbers.
So in 1951 when top prospect Mickey Mantle walked into the clubhouse with a number 6 on the back of his pinstripe jersey. The Yankees let it be known that they had plans to make the Spavinaw, Oklahoma kid the next great Yankee. For the first part of the season it didn’t work out.
In Billy Crystal’s movie 61*, there’s a dialogue between Mantle and Roger Maris as they chase Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. I’m unsure how much of the dialogue was fictionalized for the Hollywood effect, but Mantle admits that the number and pressure attached was too much for him.
His actor in the movie saying, “When I got called up they gave me number six … I hated that number, being in line with those guys.”
After struggling he was sent back down to Kansas City, eventually calling his Dad in tears thinking he couldn’t play baseball anymore. So his dad drove up to Kansas City to pack his bags and drag Mantle back to the mines, as Mantle remembers his Dad told him, “I thought I raised a man. I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work the mines with me.”
It was the slump busting inspiration that Mantle needed to get back on track. When he made his way back to New York number 7 was waiting in his locker this time. It was the monkey off his back that served as the launching pad for possibly baseball’s greatest switch hitter to bloom.
More than that, it was the first time that jersey numbers truly mattered in major league baseball. In addition, after the number 6 casted too big a shadow on Mantle to handle, it’s his number 7 that might now be casting too large a shadow for two local Atlanta kids in Braves uniforms to handle.
Jeff Francoeur made his professional broadcasting debut on the Braves television network, Fox Sports Southeast, which reminded me of this curious number case.
My first encounter with the importance of jersey numbers happened when Jeff Francoeur got his call to the show. I remember sitting with my dad watching the “Baby Braves” in 2005, and him making an immediate observation.
“Oh man,” he said with a pause, hoping I’d pry into his baseball knowledge so he could show off. I appeased him, “What, dad?”
It’s been awhile since I’ve replayed this conversation in my head, but the old man responded with something like. “They gave him Mantle’s number. And he’s playing right field like Mantle originally did. That’s a big jersey number to fill.”
A few at bats later, the hometown product sent his first major league hit over the Turner Field wall.
At that moment in time, he was living up to the expectations. He shined in that rookie spotlight, even garnering a Sports Illustrated cover.
From there, it was an up and down roller coaster. The number seven surely wasn’t to blame for Francoeur attempting to hit home runs with balls in the dirt and off the plate. But I can’t imagine it helped.
The falling out between Francoeur and the Braves Front Office after disappointing stat lines and box scores is enough material for an article on its own, but it happened, and Francoeur never quite lived up to the hype.
While venturing around the league for 11 seasons and six teams, he never again put the 7 on his back. Even when he finally got a second crack at contributing in Atlanta’s lineup, it was with 18. Sure, it was last year when the Braves had no chance of contending, but true Braves fans won’t forget his contribution off the bench last season until he was traded to Miami.
His .249 average in 99 games in 2016 might’ve been his lowest in a Braves uniform, but outside the box score he scored points in getting closure with the organization that drafted him 23rd overall and had hoped for more.
That number 7 might be to blame, after all.
In combination of hearing a diminished hometown talent in the booth while another hometown talent with the same number is on the field, jersey numbers continue to matter more to me than it should.
When Dansby Swanson got his call up in September last season he was issued number 2. A young highly touted shortstop prospect wearing number 2 … who does that remind you of? Leave it to the Yankees to relate to jersey numbers once again.
But now, Swanson sports a number. Switching to 7 this offseason, his college number, he hasn’t been the same.
It’s still far too soon to think Swanson falls victim to this number 7 weight, but still interesting to observe nonetheless.
Seven has been worn by a number of players since Mantle, in fact, every number 1-99 has had multiple representations. Players of historic talent and failed expectations have all put numbers on their back. Journeymen making pit stops have borrowed numbers from the club and tried to contribute in whatever way they can.
And that’s the thing, the club owns the number, not the player. So why should a player care so much about his number?
From a players perspective, the club keeping that digit from circulation is a sign of respect and appreciation. From the organization’s perspective, it’s another piece of merchandise they can sell.
While some players obviously care more than others, it’s always interesting to discuss the happenstance and relationships associated with numbers. Regardless of how meaningful or meaningless it is to you on the couch or the ballplayer in the field, it’s something to keep in the back of your mind whenever you notice it.
Would love to hear some banter in the comments section if there are some interesting jersey numbers that you’ve noticed or stick with you.