Why baseball players wear the numbers they wear

You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.

ON THIS DATE IN 1948, the 17th day of the month, Carlos May was born. The number mattered.

He was a good hitter for several years, the brother of Lee May. But Carlos’ claim to fame is that he wore No. 17. So his uniform was also his birthday: May 17.

There are many reasons why players wear a uniform number, often as a tribute to their favorite player. There are other reasons. Bill Voiselle wore No. 96 because he was from Ninety Six, South Carolina. Kenley Jansen wears No. 74 because it was his street address in Curacao. Benny Agbayani wore No. 50 because of the pride for his home state, Hawaii, the 50th state.

The full “On this date …” archive

Eddie Gaedel wore No. 1/8 because he was 3-foot-7. Dellin Betances wears 68 because he is 6-8. In spring training 1989, Scott Meyer was assigned No. 100 because the A’s had 100 players in camp. Joe Beimel wore 97 because his first child was born that year. Prince Fielder wore 84 with the Rangers because he was born in 1984; it signified a rebirth in his career.

J.T. Snow wore 84 for the 2006 Red Sox to honor his father, Jack, who wore 84 as a wide receiver for the Rams: Jack died the day J.T. signed with the Red Sox. Rene Gonzales wore 88 because 8 was taken by Cal Ripken, but 88 “was infinite and consistent.”

Larry Walker is consumed by the No. 3. Everything he does in life revolves around a 3, so naturally, he wore 33. Carlton Fisk wore No. 27 with the Red Sox, then No. 72 with the White Sox because, among other reasons, they represented a direction change in his career.

Andy Messersmith wore No. 17 for the Braves. His colorful owner, Ted Turner, wanted to replace Messersmith’s name with the word Channel so his uniform would read Channel 17, which was Turner’s superstation. Brett Butler, who weighed 160 pounds, wore No. 2 or 22 as a reminder of how many times he was told he was 2 small to play in the major leagues.

“There is some substance to that,” Butler said. “But, I really chose 2 because I am little, and I needed the littlest number and the littlest uniform that they had.”

The 0 worn by Adam Ottavino, Al Oliver and Oddibe McDowell was as much about the letter O as 0. And then there was pitcher Omar Olivares, who wore No. 00 to reflect his initials.

Infielder Skip Schumaker was 6 years old as he waited to get autographs from his beloved Dodgers. Several brushed by him, moving Schumaker to tears. Pitcher Orel Hershiser said to Schumaker, “I play for the Dodgers, I’m not famous, but I would be happy to sign for you.” So Schumaker wore No. 55 most of his career in honor of Hershiser.

Other baseball notes for May 17

  • In 1970, Hank Aaron recorded his 3,000th hit. If you take away his 755 homers, he would still have 3,000 hits.

  • In 2011, Harmon Killebrew died. He is one of the strongest men and nicest men ever to play the game. He hit 40 homers in a season eight times. He led the AL in homers six times.

  • In 1973, Bobby Valentine broke his leg after colliding with an outfield wall. He played six more seasons, but was not the same player. But also on this same date in 1985, Valentine began his managerial career, which lasted 2,351 games.

  • In 1998, David Wells threw a perfect game. He jokingly said something to the effect of, “I knocked down 27 straight hitters, then I went out and knocked down 27 Heinekens.”

  • In 2012, catcher Drew Butera pitched for the second time in a week. He and his dad, Sal, are the only father-son position players to pitch in a major league game.

  • In 1978, Carlos Pena was born. One spring training with the Rays, he was thrown out on the bases during a drill. “He used the Martin Luther King freedom speech as his justification for being thrown out,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He said, ‘Dr. King used to say that going to jail can be a good thing if you are going for the right reason.’ Carlos made the case that getting thrown out at third base was not a bad thing if your reasoning was correct. My first baseman was quoting Dr. King. You have to love that.”

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