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Jack McCallum
February 24, 1986
For athletes and fans alike, the name of the game often isn't a name at all, but lots of digits
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February 24, 1986

By The Numbers

For athletes and fans alike, the name of the game often isn't a name at all, but lots of digits

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4—Jack Molinas, Columbia basketball player and fixer of games.
35—Rick Kuhn, Boston College basketball player and shaver of points.
088586—Mercury Morris, Dolphin running back, serving 20 years in Dade Correctional Institution on a cocaine trafficking conviction.

"Goodbye, Twenty-three. I know how lonely it is on the road, but you'll manage."

Just as Barbara Jane Bookman said goodby to Billy Clyde Puckett in Dan Jenkins's Life Its Ownself, so do America's sports franchises say goodby to their superstars by retiring jersey numbers. The Boston Celtics are the leaders in this ritual, as Jerry Sichting discovered after arriving there in a trade at the beginning of this season. First he asked for No. 14, which he had worn with the Indiana Pacers, but it was hanging in the Boston Garden rafters in honor of Bob Cousy. Then he asked for 24, but that was up there in honor of Sam Jones. He eventually settled for No. 12.

At the rate they're going, the Celtics may someday run out of numbers. It was a fear of doing exactly that that caused the Indianapolis Colts to consider unretiring Gino Marchetti's 89 and Raymond Berry's 82. For the same reason, the Chicago Bears have never retired Dick Butkus's 51, which has been worn by a succession of Bears (Dan Neal, Mickey Malham, Mel Rogers, Bruce Herron, Kelvin Atkins and Jim Morrissey this season), none of whom has been mistaken for Butkus. Dick shouldn't feel too bad—George Halas's 7 is available, too.

In some cases, the retiring of a number is somewhat less than out of respect—former Ohio State basketball coach Fred Taylor, for example, personally saw that No. 21 was put out of circulation in the mid-'70s because it was worn by a trio whom Taylor considered world-class flakes—Larry Siegfried, Dick Taylor and Jody Finney.

Sometimes it takes family intercession to keep a retired number retired. In 1983 the Boston Bruins dusted off Dit Clapper's retired No. 5 and gave it to defenseman Guy Lapointe. Only after Clapper's daughter Marilyn campaigned to get 5 back in mothballs did the Bruins retreat.

"God made integers, all else is the work of man."
—Leopold Kronecker, mathematician

Or more specifically, the work of the late Bill Veeck, who on Aug. 19, 1951 sent 3'7", 65-pound Eddie Gaedel up to bat with a⅛ on his back. Believe it or not, Gaedel's was not the only non-integer ever worn on the back of the jersey. That distinction also belongs to Billy Barty, a 3'9" little person who wore¼ while playing basketball and softball for the Hollywood Shorties.


The possibility of conflict is ever present where numbers are concerned. Take the time the Colts lost a shot at obtaining Hacksaw Reynolds. In advance of a possible deal to bring the Ram middle linebacker to Baltimore back in the late '70s, Reynolds let it be known he wanted his customary 64. But David Taylor [a lineman] has it, said the Colts. Then I want no number, said Reynolds. But you're not allowed to wear no number, said the Colts. Then I'm staying in Los Angeles, said Reynolds. "Can you imagine that?" says Browns general manager Ernie Accorsi, who was then with the Colts' front office. "The deal fell through because of a number."

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