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If numbers convey so much to the fans, what do they signify to the athletes who are wearing them? Sometimes nothing at all. In managing the Senators, Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Tigers from 1935 to '56, Bucky Harris wore Nos. 35, 30, 28, 50, 27, 37 and 32. But such indifference is the exception. Tommy Lasorda claims that he "doesn't care about numbers," yet he can remember that he wore 11 in the minors, 27 in the majors, and that when he became the Dodger manager in 1977 he switched from 52 to 2 because he admired Durocher.
Sometimes the choice of a number has logic to it. The townsfolk from Ninety Six, S.C. never would have forgiven Bill Voiselle, a pitcher for the Giants and Braves in the '40s, if he hadn't had 96 on his back. Ex-Washington Husky quarterback Sonny Sixkiller could hardly have chosen any number but 6. When he played for the White Sox, Carlos May chose 17 so that his birth date. May 17, would appear on his back. When catcher Carlton Fisk changed his Sox from Red to White, he figured it represented a turnaround in his career, so he turned around his number from 27 to 72.
Pitcher Jerry Reuss divined the need to wear 41 on his back from a freeway sign. "There was something about the way it looked that just appealed to me," says Reuss. On the other hand, before his '83 season with the Astros, California's Frank LaCorte suddenly found something quite unappealing about his No. 31. "It reminded me of a 3-1 count," said LaCorte, who burned his uniform and became No. 27. Last year in spring training he reclaimed 31, promptly came up with calcium deposits in his right shoulder and didn't throw a pitch all year.
Willie Mays set off his 24 in diamonds on a pair of cuff links. That's fine if you're Mays. But if you're Bobby Tolan, and you get traded from St. Louis to Cincinnati and can't get your familiar 17 with the Reds, you're going to be stuck with a lot of gold 17 jewelry. Tolan, who as a Red became Vada Pinson's old 28, wore the 17 stuff anyway. If you want to ring up Garvey Marketing Group down in San Diego, the last four digits are 6666. And who can forget the time Ted Turner claimed that Andy Messersmith's nickname was Channel and put the word on the pitcher's jersey to go with his number, 17. Channel 17 is Turner Broadcasting System's UHF station in Atlanta.
A NUMBERS TRIVIA QUIZ
1. The University of Kentucky's basketball co-captains in 1954 wore Nos. 30 and 6. Their numbers were different in the pros when they played for the Celtics and the Hawks. Who were they and what were their pro numbers?
2. Fill in the blanks on this classic offensive line that blocked for 5 and 31 and gave pass protection to 15: Nos. 64, 63, __, __, __ and __.
3. Only one major league pitcher wears a single-digit number. Name him.
4. Otto Graham's number change on the Browns in 1952 at the suggestion of the NFL was a sign of the economic times in which he played—the imprint of the old number was still visible under the new. What were the two numbers?
5. What do opponents of the Chicago Bulls have in common with Dr. Wilhelm Fliess, a close friend of Sigmund Freud?