Professional athletes did not always sport numbers on their jerseys during games. This changed in the 1920s when the New York Yankees handed out numbers to players according to lineup order so that fans could recognize their favorite athletes regardless of where they were in the stadium. Jersey numbers in sports are now as common as are actual jerseys.
Imagine a referee calling out a player’s name for an infraction during a National Football League game. It even sounds weird when you say it out loud.
Some jersey numbers are so iconic that they will forever be linked with names. Texas A&M diehard fans will, for example, associate No. 2 with superstar quarterback Johnny Manziel. Manziel hasn’t yet earned a spot on this list, one filled with legends of their sports who will be remembered generations after they last suited up as active players.
These are the 10 most iconic jersey numbers in the history of sports.
10. No. 24
24 makes this list not because of a player, but rather because of what is unquestionably one of the most iconic single moments in the history of American sports. Essays, songs and television specials have been written about the catch made by Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series. When you recall that moment, you likely don’t envision an image of Mays’s face due to the fact that his back was facing home plate and the camera.
It is the No. 24 on his back as Mays completes the catch that stands out.
Mays is one of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history, and there would be some to say his wearing the number justifies it making the cut. “The Catch” goes beyond baseball, as does the number of the man who made that breathtaking play.
9. No. 12
There is something about the No. 12 that looks good on a professional quarterback. It has a classic appeal to it, yet it is also fresh to the point that it doesn’t appear awkward when modern quarterbacks at any level wear it. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts pulls off wearing No. 12 quite nicely, and he is on the verge of becoming the next great NFL QB.
New York Jets great Joe Namath wore No. 12 when he put one finger into the air to celebrate winning the Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw had the No. 12 on his jersey when he won multiple titles. Of any QB number, No. 12 would have to be in the discussion for being No. 1.
8. No. 6
If one is going to put any basketball number on this list, that individual must also include the jersey of Julius Erving. Dr. J wore No. 6 while with the Philadelphia 76ers, and his athleticism and style on the court made him a player well before his time. Bill Russell, another legend of the sport, also wore No. 6 during his days with the Boston Celtics.
6 also crosses over to baseball. Stan “The Man” Musial wore the number during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. Musial is, to this day, regarded to be one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, receiving that honor in 1969.
7. No. 7
Manchester United and the New York Yankees are organizations that are much more than sports franchises. They are institutions, international brands that go beyond the sports of soccer and baseball. People who have never and will never see those teams in person proudly wear United and Yankees gear. Both are model clubs as it pertains to the business end of sports.
The United No. 7 shirt is special in its own way because of the men who wore it during their time at the club. George Best and David Beckham. Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo. American Football fans can add the John Elway Denver Broncos jersey to the conversation if they want, but it is Manchester United that lands the number at 7 in this list.
6. No. 99
99 is rarely used in the sports world. Offensive or defensive linemen don’t wear it during games. Basketball players don’t reach for the stars and ask for a 99 from those responsible for official team jerseys. Any baseball player who campaigned to wear 99 would be the subject of ridicule from players or fans; or he’d be a hero for paying tribute to a legend.
There are good athletes, tremendous hockey players, but there is only one “Great One.” Wayne Gretzky made 99 more than a number. He made it his own, so much so that Gretzky and 99 are linked as much as is any digit with an athlete.
5. No. 10
10 isn’t a jersey number in the world of soccer. It is a position, it is a status, and it is a shirt that is only awarded to special players deemed worthy of the honor.
The greatest to ever wear No. 10 are, of course, Pele and Diego Maradona. Professional footballers who play in top-flight leagues such as the Premier League or La Liga can only hope to equal the feats of Pele and Maradona, and hoping is really more wishing in this particular circumstance.
One of the two is, depending on your outlook and perhaps your background, the greatest player in the history of the world’s most beloved sport. Jersey numbers don’t get much bigger than theirs.
4. No. 32
A plethora of sports icons wore No. 32 during their careers. Jim Brown, the greatest running back in pro football history, wore 32 while playing for the Cleveland Browns. Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers did the same. While he will never be remembered for what he accomplished as a football player, running back O.J. Simpson wore 32 as he completed journeys down football fields.
Sandy Koufax. Franco Harris. Bill Walton. As Jim Caple pointed out in an old ESPN post, there is a real argument to be made for 32 being the greatest number in sports history. Young athletes chasing greatness could choose a worse number to wear during their careers.
3. No. 23
Close your eyes and think of an athlete wearing No. 23. You probably envision a man dunking a basketball or the classic “Jumpman” logo. Michael Jordan turned 23 into more than a number. It was its own brand, and professional basketball players have been attempting to recreate what Jordan achieved during his prime.
Nobody has come close to doing so.
Jordan’s stardom was and still is at an international level, so much so that soccer great David Beckham wore No. 23 during his career in honor of Jordan. Those two are both retired, and yet they remain arguably the most recognizable faces in the sports world.
2. No. 3
“Heroes live forever, kid, but legends never die” teaches that memorable line from baseball movie The Sandlot. The character who spoke those words and the individual referred to in that moment of the film was none other than Babe Ruth.
Ruth was the first American sports living legend, a man who saved the sport of baseball following the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. He would go on to become bigger than any game, a hero to children and to adults alike. Many still see Ruth as the greatest baseball player in history, and they may very well be right in saying so.
While not technically a jersey number, NASCAR drive Dale Earnhardt also utilized the No. 3 on his memorable cars. Like with Ruth, Earnhardt’s popularity grew above that of his sport’s, to the point that some abandoned NASCAR entirely after Earnhardt tragically passed away at Daytona.
1. No. 42
Teams retire jersey numbers to honor players all the time these days, and it’s gotten to the point that some in the sports world believe that the practice itself should be retired entirely. Major League Baseball has put the No. 42 in its own category. With the retirement of New York Yankees closer and all-time great Mariano Rivera, no MLB player will ever wear No. 42 again.
The number was worn by Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of 1947. Robinson was the first player to ever win the MLB Rookie of the Year Award, and he is an icon of a different stature. When it comes to jersey numbers, none is greater or more significant than Robinson’s.