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14 Interesting Stories Behind Professional Athlete Numbers

by: Howard Cosmell On  Friday, July 15, 2011

It seems there is a movement afoot on Twitter to persuade new Detroit Red Wing Mike Commodore to wear #64 on his sweater this season. Of course, that would make him Commodore 64, just like the famous home computer released in 1982. And the best part is that Commodore has said he will consider it. Ah, the power of Twitter!

Anyway, all this got me wondering: what other professional athletes have uniform numbers with cool significance? So I starting looking into it, and here’s what I dug up, in list form.

14. Sidney Crosby (#87)

Ordinarily, there is nothing especially interesting about choosing your birth year as your jersey number. However, Crosby was not just born in 1987; he was born on 8/7/87. Even if you’re not a numerology geek, you have to admit that’s kind of a cool birthday. Also, his first contract extension back in 2007 was for $43.5 million over 5 years, which comes out to $8.7 million per year. I’m willing to bet the last four digits of The Kid’s phone number are 8787, too.

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13. Al Oliver (#0)

Al Oliver was a heck of a ballplayer—2,743 career hits, 219 HRs, .303 lifetime batting average. He broke in with the Pirates late in 1968, and played with them until he was traded to the Texas Rangers before the 1978 season. It was in Texas, in 1980, that Oliver began wearing the number 0 on his uniform. I guess by that time he was a big enough star that he could get away with it.

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12. Kevyn Adams (#42)

When hockey player Kevyn Adams first made it to the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1998, he chose to wear #42 on his sweater. This was a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 was said to be the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Man, Kevyn Adams was a nerd!

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11. Gilbert Arenas (#0)

Gilbert Arenas—aka “Agent Zero” or, more recently, “Convicted Felon”— chose to wear #0 on his back when he was a freshman at the University of Arizona. The number was meant to be a constant reminder that zero was the number of minutes many expected him to play. Of course, the three-time NBA all-star proved his critics wrong. However, since moving from Washington to Orlando at the start of 2011, Arenas has been wearing #1 in honor of his favorite player, Penny Hardaway.

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10. Carlos May (#17)

Carlos May was a left-fielder for the Chicago White Sox from 1968-1976. He is believed to be the only baseball player ever to wear his exact birthdate on his uniform. Yep, that’s right, Carlos May was born on May 17, 1948.

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9. Jordin Tootoo (#22)

The right winger for the Nashville Predators may be the only professional athlete to ever have his (real*) name be his number, and vice versa. Get it? Tootoo and 22? If anyone can think of anyone else for whom this is the case, please leave a comment below. (And here’s another little piece of Tootoo trivia: Jordin is the first ever NHL player of Inuit descent. Next time you’re at the bar with you’re buddies talking sports, use that nugget to win yourself a beer.)

*In contrast to #2 below.

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8. Jim Otto (#00)

Back in the 1960s, pro football was serious business, so the leagues generally didn’t allow silly jersey numbers. However, in 1961 the AFL made an exception for future Pro Football Hall of Fame center, Jim Otto. He was allowed to take the number 00, for which he became famous, since it was a pun on his name. (Remember kids, “aught” is an old-fashioned way of saying “oh.” Thus 00 can be pronounced “aught-oh,” like “Otto”).

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7. Wayne Gretzky (#99)

The story of Gretzky’s #99 would be boring if he didn’t turn out to be the best hockey player that ever lived. You see, he originally wanted #9 (in honor of his boyhood hero, Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe), but it was already being worn by his teammate on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. So the Great One chose 99 instead, which was only fitting, since he went on to supplant Howe as the undisputed face of the sport. He probably wasn’t quite 11x greater than Howe, but he might as well have been.

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6. Alexander Mogilny (#89)

For Russian sniper Alexander Mogilny, 89 wasn’t just any old number. It was a number that he would forever associate with freedom. That’s because ‘89 is the year Mogilny defected from the Soviet Union to come play in the NHL.

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5. Steve Heinze (#57)

If you’re name is Heinze, you pretty much have to go with #57, don’t you?

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4. Andrei Kirilenko (#47)

No, that’s not evil Soviet boxer Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. That’s Utah Jazz “small” forward Andrei Kirilenko. Obviously, his initials and number together yield the nickname AK47, like the Soviet assault rifle. However, Kirilenko, while a solid player, is not quite as dangerous as his moniker suggests. He’s averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebound per game through 10 years in the NBA.

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3. Jaromir Jagr (#68)

It turns out Jaromir Jagr was more than just a ridiculous afromullet with great hockey skills. He also had a political conscience and a sentimental streak. His number 68 stood for 1968. That was the year of the “Prague Spring”—a period during which reform-minded politicians tried to liberalize communist Czechoslovakia, only to have their efforts squashed by a full-on invasion by the Soviet Union. 1968 was also the year Jagr’s grandfather died in prison. Kind of makes Sidney Crosby’s number seem a little vain, doesn’t it?

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2. Chad Ochocinco (#85)

I know I made the claim that Jordin Tootoo was the only player whose name was his number and vice versa. But Chad Ochocinco doesn’t count. You all know the story. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson wore #85. Then he decided to change his last name from Johnson to Ochocinco, which is “8-5” in Spanish. So, yeah, technically his name is the same as his number, but he had to file a lot of paper work to make it that way.

1. Eddie Gaedel (#⅛)

This is easily the greatest uniform number in the history of professional sports, and the number’s significance is actually quite obvious if you know anything about the St. Louis Browns’ Eddie Gaedel. You see, Gaedel was a 26-year-old man with dwarfism who made MLB history on August 19, 1951. That’s the day he strode to the plate—all 3 feet, 7 inches of him—to take the only at-bat of his career. Obviously, given the tiny strike zone in play, Gaedel walked on four consecutive balls. He was then replaced by a pinch-runner on first base, ending his career as the shortest player in the history of the league with a 1.000 lifetime On-Base Percentage. Because of diminutive stature, Gaedel didn’t get a whole number on his jersey, but instead the fraction ⅛. The whole thing was a publicity stunt conjured up by Bill Veeck, legendary owner of the St. Louis Browns and, later on, the Chicago White Sox.

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