We were watching How Do You Know? on DVD this weekend, and I had to point out something that wasn’t realistic. The main characters were pitchers for the Washington Nationals, and a pitcher warming up was wearing number 8. Pitchers don’t wear number 8, I said.
Originally, uniform numbers reflected where players usually batted in the batting order. Babe Ruth wore #3 because he usually hit third, and Lou Gehrig wore #4 because he usually hit fourth. Numbers 1-8 were given to the regulars. Bench players got the next few numbers, and pitchers got higher numbers. Sometimes in the 20s, often in the 30s and 40s.
And in spring training, you can tell what a team thinks of a prospect’s chances of making the opening day roster by the uniform number they get. A player wearing #53 doesn’t stand much of a chance.
Teams retire the uniform numbers of their greatest players, so a lot of the single-digit numbers are off limits. Especially on teams like the Yankees. On teams that came into being more recently, you’ll see more single-digit numbers. And usually those will go to starters, since star players have ways of getting the uniform number they want.
Numbers in the 20s can go either way. Cubs great Ryne Sandberg wore #23. He played second base. Pitcher Zack Greinke wore #23 with the Kansas City Royals. But generally, the higher the number, the more likely it’s a pitcher.
Sometimes players will break with tradition a little. Mitch Williams wore #99 when pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, and first baseman Al Oliver wore #0 for several teams.
So that’s why you’ll almost never see a pitcher wearing a single-digit uniform number.