When the Bronx Bombers sneezed in those days, the rest of the league said, "Bless you," so the numbering of players was widespread by 1930. Still, there was at least one successful holdout—Connie Mack. In what for 1937 represented a heavy dose of acerbic sports-writing. Bill Boni of the New York Post wrote after noting that Mack's A's still did not wear numbers: "It has been agreed that this is, perhaps, just as well—that the odd citizens who attempted to perform various chores for Connie Mack prefer to be cloaked in anonymity on the grounds of self-defense."
Baseball has no formal number-by-position system. The National League briefly tried one in the '50s (managers, coaches, catchers 1 to 9; infielders 10 to 19: outfielders 20 to 29, etc.), but there were many complaints from established players who just didn't want to change. The remnants of the system can still be seen with the Cubs and the Reds, but it never really caught on.
Since 1952 the NFL has followed a number-by-position policy: 1 to 19 are now reserved for quarterbacks and punters, 20 to 49 backs (offensive or defensive), 50 to 59 centers and linebackers, 60 to 79 linemen, 80 to 89 receivers, 90 to 99 defensive linemen and linebackers. But it has allowed for exceptions—like linebacker Nick Buoniconti's 85 (grandfathered in from the AFL), and the many wide receivers who wear backs' numbers (Cliff Branch's 21. etc.). College basketball prohibits the use of digits above 5 to make it easier for refs to indicate which players have committed fouls. In the NBA anything from 0 to 99 is acceptable, but smaller guys usually get the smaller numbers. Some players are clearly misnumbered. Moses Malone's 2 should go to a point guard, and Albert King's and Kiki Vandeweghe's 55 should belong to a clumsy center, as it does in the case of Stuart Gray. The NHL, which years ago had a lot of numbers in the 60s and 70s, is positively vapid in its numbering. Most players dutifully wear 1 (often a goaltender) through 44. The only exceptions are Gretzky's 99 (which he selected as a junior player back in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. when he couldn't get No. 9) and Mario Lemieux's 66 (selected to imitate Gretzky).
Once and for all, Ralph Branca wants the world to know that he did not have a phobia about 13.
The Dodgers gave him No. 13 when he joined the team in 1944; Kirby Higbe, who had worn the number, was in the service. Branca switched to 20 when Higbe returned in '46, then took back 13 after Higbe was traded in '47. He wore 13 with pride until the late afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson took him downtown at the Polo Grounds. When the righthander reported to spring training in '52, a No. 12 jersey was waiting for him.
"The Dodger front office, in its sublime wisdom, changed the number for me," says Branca. "I resented it very much."
St. Louis pitcher Mort Cooper wore 13 until midway through the 1942 season; when he was stuck so long at 13 victories that he kept changing his uniform number. He switched to 14 then 15 and then 16 before pitching his way out of the rut, finishing with a 22-7 record, a 1.78 ERA and the MVP award.
"I know there's nothing to it, but I won't give out 13 without an argument," says Frank Cox, the equipment manager at Auburn. That's exactly how the late Bill Lucas, the Atlanta Braves' vice-president and director of player personnel, felt in 1978 when he issued an organization-wide decree that No. 13 was off-limits. Lucas then drove to Miami to watch his son. Bill Jr., play for Florida A & M against the University of Miami. Young Bill went 2 for 4...with a 13 on his back.
Auto racing, understandably, is rife with triskaidekaphobia. No one wants to even think about a fiery crash involving a car numbered 13. George Mason came to Indianapolis in 1914 with a 13 on his car, started 13th and finished 23rd. Seventeen years later Louis Schneider arrived with a 13, and officials made him paint over it. Maybe that's why he won the race that year.