Origin of the Numbers
Today’s baseball fans can identify their favorite players by the numbers on their backs almost as easily as their names, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1929, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians squared off in the first game in Major League Baseball history that featured both teams' players wearing numbered uniforms on their backs. Soon, other teams followed, and by 1933, all teams would place unique numbers on their players’ attire except for the then-Philadelphia Athletics, which didn't adopt numbers until 1937. The initial concept in the American League was to use the numbers to reflect each player’s position in the batting order, which explains why all AL MVP winners from 1932-1942 had single-digit jersey numbers. As time went on, the use of numbers began to vary, and eventually, all teams would adopt the policy that is currently seen in today’s league, which allows players to choose numbers by personal preference.
The concept of superstition is perhaps more prevalent in baseball than any other sport, which has led to jersey numbers becoming a point of contention on numerous occasions. One such instance involves Rickey Henderson, who, upon being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993, famously offered a teammate $25,000 for the right to wear No. 24, which he donned when he won the American League MVP in 1990.
A-Rod & Bonds
Speaking of superstitions, only one player* has ever won the Most Valuable Player award while wearing No. 13: Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod changed to 13—with which he won MVP honors in 2005 and 2007—because his new team, the Yankees, had retired No. 3 in honor of arguably the greatest player of all time, Babe Ruth, who, ironically, didn’t wear the number during his 1923 MVP campaign, which took place in the pre-number era of baseball.
Rodriguez did, however, wear No. 3 during his previous MVP season with the Texas Rangers in 2003, making him one of only two players in MLB history to win the award with more than one uniform number. The other player with that distinction is Barry Bonds, whose two accolades with No. 24 and five with No. 25 give him a total of seven MVPs, the most of any player in history.
*After being stuck on his 13th win for over a month, pitcher Mort Cooper of the St. Louis Cardinals, who originally wore No. 13, decided that his jersey number was the cause of his misfortune, so he changed his uniform number to 14 in hopes of breaking out of his slump. The plan worked, and Cooper continued the practice of changing his jersey number with each win for the remainder of the season, ultimately concluding the year with the No. 24 and a league-best 22 victories en route to MVP honors in 1942.
In a sport full of sacred numbers—Bonds’ 73-home run season, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, Cal Ripken, Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played, Roger Maris’ 61 homers in ’61—perhaps none are more recognizable than the ones on the backs of the jerseys. Click the numbers below to reveal what has been worn most by MLB MVPs over the years, as well as additional historical facts on some of the sport's best players.
Browse MVPs By Number
In 1997, in honor of MVP and Baseball Hall of Fame member, Jackie Robinson, MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced that going forward; no future players would wear his No. 42. It became the only number to be retired by every team in Major League Baseball. With the 2013 retirement of the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the number will be gone forever, save for each April 15, when all of baseball pays tribute by donning No. 42 for the day. Click HERE for the full list of retired MLB numbers.