There are some parts of the baseball experience we take for granted, which have been around since time immemorial, it seems. The games start with the national anthem, a tradition that dates back to World War I. Hot dogs are available to eat, which goes back to Harry Stevens’ contract with most major league clubs for concessions and scorecards.
And speaking of scorecards, they all feature pertinent information about the players (“You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” Stevens himself would bellow as he tried to sell them), including their numbers. But uniform numbers are, comparatively speaking, a new tradition in baseball. It was “only” 90 years ago this week that two teams wearing uniform numbers took the field against each other – the Yankees and Indians at League Park.
In a milestone that’s become fairly obscure, the Indians were the first team in the major leagues to wear numbers on their uniforms, taking the field at League Park on June 26, 1916, with numbers affixed to their sleeves, an idea of team Vice President Bob McRoy came up with, borrowing the location from jockeys in horse racing.
The idea was met with curiosity, if not cynicism (one newspaper suggested the Indians did it to encourage further sales of scorecards, which of course listed all the players by number) and faded away relatively quickly. The St. Louis Cardinals adopted the idea briefly in 1923 – also on the sleeves. It didn’t take that time either, being abandoned, Branch Rickey later said, because of “continuing embarrassment to the players.” Your guess is as good as mine what they had to be embarrassed about.
Prior to the 1929 season, the Yankees took a slightly different approach, contracting with Raleigh Athletic Equipment, a company in the shadow of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, to stitch numbers on the backs of the uniforms, conforming with the players’ order in the lineup (that’s why Babe Ruth wore 3 and Lou Gehrig wore 4). The Indians revived their uniform numbers as well, and became the first team to take the field with numbers on their back on a technicality: The Yankees’ opener was rained out. (That’s also how the Indians and White Sox had the first day of the American League all to themselves as well; every other game was rained out).
A month later, on May 13, 1929, the two teams met for the first time that season at League Park. The Indians got on the board first, when Lew Fonseca singled to score Carl Lind in the bottom of the third. Fonseca took third on an error by Babe Ruth – his first of the season – and then scored on a single by the next batter, Earl Averill. “Naturally, it has to cost the Yanks a run as the great man does everything in a big way.”
The Indians were holding on to a 4-1 lead in the top of the ninth when starter Willis Hudlin gave up a single to Ruth, followed by a double to Lou Gehrig that moved the Bambino to third. Ruth scored on a single by Bob Meusel, which sent Gehrig to third. Tony Lazzeri hit a sacrifice fly for the first out of the inning to score Gehrig. Former Indian George Burns pinch-hit for shortstop Leo Durocher, and he grounded to Fonseca, who tossed the ball to Hudlin at first for the out. Bill Dickey lifted a fly ball to League Park’s expansive center field, but it was caught by Averill to end the game.
This time, the idea took hold. Within a decade, every team in the majors had numbers on their uniforms, and it wasn’t long before most added players’ names too. The lone team never to have added names? The Yankees. Sometimes, you just stick with tradition.