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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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I hate football. I just like to watch number 33 run around in those tight black pants.

Like Tom Cruise's girlfriend in All the Right Moves, sports fans identify their heroes by the numbers. More than that, a number—be it on a jersey, a race car, or a saddlecloth—often becomes one with the athlete. Sometimes we can envision a player's number but can't remember his name. We have that in common with Choo Choo Coleman, No. 17, who once said to a teammate on the Mets, Charlie Neal, "Sure I remember you. You're number 4."

"Numbers, you know, have a mysterious life of their own," Dr. Irving J. Matrix, the numerologist/magician/con-artist creation of author Martin Gardner, once said. Indeed, it was almost as much No. 77 as it was Red Grange who ran for four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes against Michigan on Oct. 18, 1924. From that day forward, 77 may as well have been taken out of sports circulation. It forever belongs to Grange.

Jersey numbers transmit all kinds of cabalistic messages. There's a sense of power about the double numbers—Grange's 77; the 99 of Wayne Gretzky; the 22 of Elgin Baylor; the 33s of Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sammy Baugh; the 44s of Jerry West, Henry Aaron (Aaron, sensing this, switched to 44 after wearing 5 in his rookie season of 1954) and a remarkable succession of Syracuse All-America running backs (Jimmy Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little); the dirty, bloody 66s of Ray Nitschke and Bulldog Turner; or the 88s of John Mackey and Alan Page. It was appropriate in Page's case, since he played quarterbacks like a piano—he could really rattle their ivory. Numbers below 10 signal stability and longevity, that of a Ruth (3), an Orr (4), a Musial and a Bill Russell (6) or a Yastrzemski (8). Roll that lucky No. 7, and call out Mickey Mantle, Hank Luisetti or Stirling Moss. Toss a No. 9 into a face-off and see who skates off with the puck—Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard. If No. 2 isn't Nellie Fox or Leo Durocher, then it's a Notre Dame quarterback with a single-bar helmet and an ethnic name. No. 1 is a scrappy captain type, a Pee Wee Reese, or a hockey goalie with a plate in his head, two teeth in his mouth and mayhem in his eyes.

Hank Greenberg's retired No. 5 meant so much to the Detroit Tigers that the club wouldn't let a fellow named Jim Northrup wear it even in its fantasy camp. The Chicago Bears named a defense, 46, after retired safety Doug Plank's jersey number. Mention 32 at an all-night poker game and watch everybody argue over who the rightful claimant is. Is it Sandy Koufax? (Too short a career, K-man.) Franco Harris? (Not outside Pittsburgh.) Cookie Gilchrist? (Not outside Buffalo.) Jack Tatum? (You would probably prefer Johnny Sample over Willie Mays for 24, too.) O.J. Simpson? (Too late, Orenthal.) Jimmy Brown? (Yes, of course; he took that number when he joined the Browns.)

Bet the 4 horse. Hit 'em on the numbers. Mike Ditka, All-Pro: "I don't ever pick on anybody who has a number above 30." William Shakespeare, All-Elizabethan: "There is divinity in odd numbers."

Are you a Knick fan in search of omens? On the night before the Patrick Ewing-thon, the first number picked in the New York State Lottery was Ewing's at Georgetown—33. See No. 65 in spring training? You're watching a young righthander destined for seasoning in Pawtucket. Who's that No. 111 practicing punts? You're watching spring football at Ohio State. Is that No. 74 catching a pass? Wake up, you're watching the Canadian Football League.

Numbers are often the only link between fan and hero. One can but guess what percentage of New England's populace has slipped on a No. 22 Boston College jersey and scrambled around the backyard in search of Gerard Phelan. "If I had a nickel for every kid I saw with a 22 Flutie jersey," says BC sports information director Reid Oslin, "I'd be a millionaire." It was the same thing three decades ago in Baton Rouge, when young LSU fans went swivel-hipping through the streets wearing Billy Cannon's 20. A pilfering souvenir hunter at the University of Maryland was so fond of Randy White that No. 94, and not 74, was the number eventually retired in White's honor; White wore 74 until the middle of his junior season but then had to switch when the last 74 jersey vanished from the equipment room.

I've always thought that Ty Cobb's image would have been better had he not come along before the custom of numbering players. He seems perfect for 11—an unusual, cranky kind of number, a Norm Van Brocklin-Bob McAdoo number. "Yeah, he was a mean sumbitch, but ol' number 11 could play, couldn't he?"

Some numbers suggest nothing or nobody. Any good 92s come to mind? Not to me. I think of 20 as a kind of nothing number (Bernie Kosar says a 20 jersey was thrown at him "like an old dishrag" during his sophomore year in high school when no one knew he could play), even though Frank Robinson and Cannon wore it, not to mention that it's the number of wives possessed by Chol Bol, grandfather of Manute Bol. Yet its double, 40, seems special, conjuring up the speed and grace of Gale Sayers as well as the toughness of Joe Morrison.

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