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Jersey boys

The tale behind our picks for best athletes by number

Posted: Thursday July 5, 2007 10:48AM; Updated: Thursday July 5, 2007 12:00PM
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The Great One and only. Is the name really necessary above the number in this case?
The Great One and only. Is the name really necessary above the number in this case?
By The Numbers
DEITSCH: The story behind our jersey selections
JERSEYS 00-31: Jim Otto to Greg Maddux
JERSEYS 32-65: Magic Johnson to Elvin Bethea
JERSEYS 66-99: Super Mario to the Great One
A sampling of actors and politicians in uniform

By Richard Deitsch

In sports, there's only one No. 99 (Wayne Gretzky) and No. 66 (Mario Lemieux), but who's number one among those who have actually worn No. 1? Is it 12-time NBA All-Star Oscar Robertson or is it Warren Moon, the only player to be enshrined by both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame? Oh, and what about Sadaharu Oh? The Japanese home run king wore 1 as well.

Then there are those uniform numbers that lack star quality. Quick, who's the best player to wear No. 69? You'll need some time on that unless you're a Tim Krumrie fan.

A number -- be it on a jersey, the side of a car, or a saddlecloth -- often becomes one with the athlete. Or zero with the athlete, as in the case of Agent Zero, Gilbert Arenas, the star guard for the Washington Wizards who chose his number upon attending the University of Arizona because zero was the number of minutes that many observers expected him to play.

Wayne Gretzky chose his number for more reverential reasons. As a 17-year-old member of the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds, he originally wanted No. 9 as a tribute to his idol, Gordie Howe, but the number was owned by another teammate. Gretzky then opted for No. 19 and switched to 14 before finally settling on 99 at the suggestion of the team's general manager. Now the number forever belongs to Gretzky.

A team of SI.com's finest numerologists crunched the data on jersey numbers to come up with the best performers (across all sports) at each number from 00 to 99 (Eddie Gaedel was a lock at 1/8). In our three photo galleries of the selections, we also listed our runner-up choice and, in some cases, others who were worthy of consideration for the top spot. No doubt you'll disagree with some of our choices and we look forward to reading your arguments on FanNation.

The toughest calls? Tom Brady over Terry Bradshaw (No. 12) and John Elway over Mickey Mantle (No. 7). Brady got the nod for winning in a more competitive era with less talent around him. You can flip a coin between Elway and Mantle, but we gave the Broncos star the edge for how he finished his career.

The easiest choices? Pele (10), Michael Jordan (23), and Lawrence Taylor (56). Numbers that lacked star quality: 65 (Elvin Bethea), 67 (Reggie McKenzie) and 69 (Krumrie).

The number worn by the most stars? Marcus Allen, Jim Brown, Steve Carlton, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Franco Harris, Sandy Koufax, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal and O.J. Simpson all wore 32.

Of course, some famous players never even had a uniform number, including Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young. And when Babe Ruth hit home run No. 60 on Sept. 30, 1927, he was wearing, well, nothing on his back. Jersey numbers became common after the Depression, and the Yankees didn't officially decide to wear them until Opening Day 1929. The Babe was our call at No. 3 (just a car length over Dale Earnhardt), but there was plenty of debate along the way.