# How are numbers assigned in pro sports?

Our hockey team has 13 guys returning out of last season’s 18 man roster. That means we have signed 5 new guys. How are numbers assigned? Does the coach send a list of the numbers already taken and let them choose? Or are the numbers just randomly assigned?

I am not in charge of a professional sports team, but I did run a beer league softball team for several years. When we got jerseys, everyone picked a number. If someone moved away or quit, that number was “retired”. As new guys joined, they could pick from whatever was available. If a returner wanted a new number, they had to wait until the newbies picked theirs and then could pick a new number. If the number that the returner wanted was taken by a newbie, then (like in the pros) deals were made if the returner wanted the number badly enough. Cases of beer were usually the currency of choice in these instances.

We banned the use of 69, though, basically because we weren’t 12 years old anymore, and the giggles just aren’t there anymore.

In NCAA football the numbers are assigned according to position. Receivers, for example are in the 80’s.

It didn’t used to be that way. You just got a number out of those available. If you got to be really good you might be given a chance to pick your number. Tom Harmon was a walk-on at Michigan and was first given the number 99, i.e. tackling and blocking dummy for the game squad. When he turned out to be a great running back the coaches offered him his choice of numbers but he said no thanks and kept 99.

Heh, you said 69.

In the NFL the numbers are assigned by position.

Simply put:

QB, P, K = 1-19
RB, DB = 20-49
C = 50-59; 60-79
G, T = 60-79
WR = 80-89; 10-19
TE = 80-89
DL (NT/DT/DE) = 60-79; 90-99
LB = 50-59; 90-99

Depending on the sport, things go a little differently.

In the NFL, the numbers are segregated by positions. Generally, you’ll see quarterbacks and kickers with the numbers 1 to 19, running backs and defensive backs with numbers from 20 to 49, Linebackers and offensive linemen from 50 to 59, offensive and defensive linemen from 60 to 79, and wide receivers from 80 to 89. Numbers in the 90’s are usually defensive linemen or linebackers. There are some that don’t fit, but usually they started in a position with a correct number and went to a new postion and kept the number.

In baseball, there are some conventions such as pitchers getting higher numbers, but these are not a universal truth or codified into the rules.

I don’t know much about the other major sports.

I guess I didn’t do too badly by memory… except being late on the draw…

As Dave says in football there is a method to the numbers, not just in college but in the pros. Receivers are usually in the 80s, kickers and quarterbacks are in the low tens or single digits, linebackers are usually in the 50s etc. This is mostly so the refs can keep track of who should be where so they can tell if its an illegal formation. There are some overlaps and exceptions. For instance Cordell Stewart couldn’t be expect to change his number just because he lines up for a play at receiver rather than quarterback.
In baseball it’s pretty much random. A new player comes in and the equipment manager lets him know which number is available. The player gets to choose as long as the number is not retired from the team. There have been some instances when a big name player is attached to a number and gos to a new team where it is in use already. There have been stories of payouts between the players to get the numbers switched. The only number that can’t be used on any team is 42. A couple of years ago MLB retired Jackie Robinson’s number from all teams. A few players were able to keep it because they were wearing it before the rule came out. IIRC the Yankees started the tradition of retiring numbers of their great players starting with Lou Gerhig.

I have issue with this. Eric Metcalf is a wide receiver who started as a running back. His number is 22. (At least this is educational since I thought he was retired)

Also Randy White was a defensive tackle with the number 54 because he first started in the NFL playing linebacker.

Apparently the quoted part of the rule isn’t widely enforced.

forgive me, I type slow

Originally, numbers 1-8 were assigned to the batters in the batting order (in that order). 9 usually went to the backup catcher, 10-20 was for pitchers and then the higher numbers for the bench players.

That system was fairly quickly abandoned. Generally speaking, a team will grant a player’s request for a number provided it isn’t retired or in use. Some teams (like the Yankees) also “unofficially” retire numbers. For example, after he left the team as a player, no Yankee wore Willie Randolph’s number 30. He re-claimed the number when he came back as a coach. Likewise, Guidry’s 49 was unofficially retired (although they did give it to a guy named Jeff Johnson for a short while in 1991) after he left the team (it has since been officially retired).

As noted above, number 42 was retired throughout baseball for Jackie Robinson in 1997. A grandfather clause allowed anyone at the time wearing it to continue to do so for the remainder of their careers. The only player still wearing number 42 is Mariano Rivera of the Yankees.

Zev Steinhardt

Forgot to include this:

As far as the rules go, there are no official rules on numbers except the following:

No one can be assigned 42 (as noted above)
All players must have numerals on the backs of the uniform with the numbers being a minumum of six inches high (rule 1.11 (a)(1). Theoretically, you could have all 25 guys wearing the same number, I suppose.

Zev Steinhardt

I don’t know if there is any logic or rule to this, but in hockey, the goalie is almost ALWAYS either 1, or in the range of 27-42. Other positions are anywhere between 2-49…only rarely does a player have a number above 50, and it’s usually only if they’re some superstar like Lemiunx (66) , Lindros (88)or Gretsky (99), and even then, only a double number.
Sergei Zubov had 56 and 90 so I guess he was the exception to the rule.
I don’t know how things in basketball work (except that it seems like ALL the good players are 30-35), but Dennis Rodman said that he was number 91 because 911 wouldn’t fit on his uniform.

True, but they could still have been listed officially on the roster as their old poistions. The rule isn’t writen to determine your number by where you line up on each and every snap, it’s what position you play as listed in the roster. That way you don’t have to change jerseys if you fill in in case of an injury, sort of like when the OLineman from the Eagles was the place kicker when Akers went down two weeks ago. Also, you can ask for and be given an exception to this rule but it isn’t very common, the ones you listed above could have been granted this exception. The Redskins use a H-back like mentioned in the rule I quoted above and he wears #47, even though he is realistically more of a smallish TE and should wear 80-89. FWIW our FB/TE Mike Sellers wears #45 and backup RB Ladell Betts wears 46. Also on a tackle-eligible play, one where the offense uses two OT on one side of the football instead of the standard OT,TE, the tackle is an eligible reciever as a tight end would be even though his jersey is still 60-79.

Metcalf was listed as WR on NFL.com several years ago. White was too long ago for me to remember, and before the internet, but he played DT and they made a big deal about moving him from linebacker.

In basketball, the numers can run from 0 to 55 but all the digits can end with no number greater than 5. The reason for this is that the referee signals for fouls by first indicating the type of foul and then the number of the player who commited it by using fingers on both hands. only 5 fingers per hand therefore the first digit of the number, as well as the last, can’t be a number higher than a 5. In the pros, players sometimes wear numbers that don’t end in 5. Dennis Rodman wore both 19 and 91. John Havlicek wore 17. I’ve seen a player wear 99, but those were by player’s choice. The number didn’t mean anything other than a player was trying to assert his uniqueness.

In soccer, it used to be that the number the player wore depended on the position that he played on the field. 1 was for goalies, defense wore numbers 2 through 5 or 6 depending on how many fullbacks were on the field. Midfielders wore 6,8,10. Wings wore 7 and 11 and forwards 9 and 10. The great Pele was identified by the number 10 but that wasn’t initially “his” number. It was the number of the position he played for Santos and Brazil. Johan Cruyff always wore 14, a substitutes number. His son Jordi Cruyff wears 14 to honor his father.Substitutes wore 12 through 16 generally. Nowadays, with so much televised soccer, this system is rarely used. The players pick their number, if sufficiently renowned, or take whatever number they’re assigned, if not. I’ve seen numbers as high as 34 in EPL games. For international games, I’ve seen rosters where numbers were assigned alphabetically, where the starters wear 1 through 11 and the substitutes randomly assigned numbers or each individual player was assigned a number that had nothing to do with his position. For some reason, 18 and 22 have become popular goalie numbers.

In hockey, goalies used to wear 1 and 30. Backup goalies wore 31, 32. Defensemen who played regularly wore 2 through 6. Those with fewer shifts got numbers in the 20s. Forwards wore 7 through 19 generally. That system began to break down when Ken Dryden played goal for Montreal. He always wore 27. Wayne Gretsky pretty much killed it when he claimed 99. Now players with enough star power wear whatever number they want. I’ve seen a player wear 85, the year he defected from the USSR. Mario Lemieux took 99 and turned it upside down and wore 66. Paul Coffey wore 7 in Edmonton an wore 77 in Pittsburgh.

I hope this wasn’t TMI.

Sidney Crosby is #87.

Even before they were superstars, you had Alex Mogilny choosing 89 for the year he defected, and Sergei Fedorov following his example with 91 - except that he defected in '90, but thought a number with 0 would be unlucky. And Jaromir Jagr chose 68 because of the Czech revolt against the USSR - IIRC, his grandfather was killed in the fighting. You could argue that because their talent was known for their play in Europe, these guys were destined to become stars, but weren’t necessarily well-known in North America at the time.

Steve Heinze always wore 23, but when coach Pat Burns arrived in Boston, he joked that it should have been 57. Heinze did change to 57 after leaving Boston.

Hal Gill started with 75, but Burns said if he was playing on a squad with Ray Bourque wearing 77 (itself because he gave up 7 in order for it to be retired in Phil Esposito’s name), he hadn’t earned a number that high, and has worn 25 ever since. Often, players will take another player’s number in honor of that player, if the number isn’t retired or they are on a different team - like when Adam Oates took 77 after leaving Boston, in honor of Bourque. Gretzky’s 99 is the only number retired league-wide as far as I know, like Jackie Robinson’s 42.

I can’t think of any other particular examples offhand, but there’s a lot of room for personal choice in hockey.

OK, essentially no one has the rules for choosing numbers online. Which I think is weird. But what I found is: