Ever since uniform numbers became a standard of athletics, fans have taken to those designations with a sort of direct ownership to their wearers, forever taking entitlement with the name and their number.
The most common association is with Babe Ruth and his number 3, or perhaps with his teammate, Lou Gehrig, who was honored with the first uniform number to be retired, number 4.
Or do you forever link Broadway Joe Namath with his number 12 Jets jersey, or Wayne Gretzky, who boldly went with the highest double-digit enumeration, 99?
A new book by longtime ESPN broadcaster and show host Mike Greenberg, along with his content producer, Paul “Hembo” Hembekides, “Got Your Number,” looks to tie many of these legends to their numbers and purposely trigger debates as to who “owns” which number.
When “Greeny,” as he is often referred, and his TV show staff from “Get Up” were shut down during the height of the Covid epidemic, they talked sports via phone calls, and zooms, etc., as they are wont to do, and one of the themes that kept cropping up was uniform numbers.
The concept originated when they were discussing quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Roger Staubach, and the one who will join them in a few years, Tom Brady.
“Get Up” Producer Pete McConville speculated, “They all wore number 12, but which one owns the number 12?”
Let the debates ensue.
Here’s where the arguments begin. Despite all of the success by those already in the Hall of Fame, Greeny and his staff all agreed TB 12 owns the number. And that’s when he realized he had an idea for a book.
“You see, I am a sports talk-show host,” acknowledges Greenberg, “In my job, there is no question that cannot be answered. In most cases, those answers come loudly, immediately, and with considerable bombast. In fact, if there was a handbook for sports talk-show hosts, the first rule would be: No matter the question, always have an answer. The second rule would be: Your opinion is always right. And the third (rule): In the event you are wrong, see rule number two.”
So, right or wrong, these two tackled every number from 1 to 99 with tributes to those they claim owns that number.
But first, a brief history lesson, compliments of Greeny and Hembo.
Despite thinking the Yankees were the first and best to do everything among some fans, they were not the first team to wear numbers. In fact, it wasn’t even a baseball team that first conceived of the notion. It was a rugby match in 1897 between Queensland and New Zealand in Brisbane, Australia, that inspired assigning the participants with numerical separation.
The first rugby league to mandate uniform numbers was also in Australia some fourteen years later.
It wasn’t until 1916 that a baseball team, the then-Cleveland Indians, tried pinning numbers on the left sleeves of their players, but the players balked and the concept was shelved.
In 1929, both the Indians and Yankees revisited the idea, and by then, the public was ready to embrace the idea, and the practice soon became standardized. After all, the fans in the upper reaches of the upper deck in the enormous stadiums of the era certainly had a more difficult time figuring out who was batting without numbers, and maybe it helped the sales of game day programs.
The Yankees simplified the concept by assigning numbers based on positions in the batting order, and that’s how Ruth became 3, and Gehrig was 4.
So with all of this as background, Greeny and Hembo stirred the numbers pot and came up with a bunch of debate-inducing conclusions, arguably no greater than the quarterback volleys.
Ozzie Smith backflipped to Number 1. Derek Jeter turned 2. Ruth? See above. But 4 didn’t go to Gehrig. “Got Your Number” laced up Bobby Orr. Five went to Mr. Coffee, Joe DiMaggio. Bill Russell dunked number 6. Seven, to this observer, should have gone to the Mick, Mickey Mantle. But in this book, John Elway passed his way in. Number 8, with a tear, went to Kobe. Sorry, Yogi. And maybe number 9 should have gone to the greatest hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams. Instead, Greeny gave it to Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. Topping the Top Ten was Pele, soccer’s greatest.
And so on. You can see how this is a fun book to embrace and initiates great barstool debates.
“Got Your Number,” Hyperion Avenue Press, hardcover, $25.99, 315 pages, is of course, available wherever books are sold.
Also new to the bookshelf is “Baseball’s Endangered Species,” by Lee Lowenfish. The full title is: “Baseball’s Endangered Species: Inside the Craft of Scouting by Those Who Lived it.”
Here is a fitting homage baseball’s most under-appreciated employees, the scouts. Without scouts, how would any team have found all of the great Hall of Famers, as well as those who occupy every major league roster.
The days of a kid knocking on the door of a major league team asking for a tryout is long gone and only happens in the movies from what seem like a hundred years ago.
Armed with maybe just a stopwatch and a radar gun, and back in the day, not even those implements, just a keen set of eyes, and a perceptive pair of ears scouts “beat the bushes” and tracked down every lead that might have led to that buried treasure. They are baseball’s bird dogs, the weary travelers always on the lookout, watching, listening, evaluating. Finding diamonds in the rough. Four leaf clovers on a mountain top.
“He was a skinny, chicken-chested, right-handed pitcher,” Lowenfish describes in one instance of evaluation. “About six-foot-two and 140 pounds. The kid was drawing some attention as a junior, but his coaches didn’t even think he was the best pitcher on the team. Nonetheless, Red Murff sat in the stands baking in the Texas heat, watching and listening. And when Murff heard the whoosh of the kid’s fastball explode into the catcher’s glove, he knew he had found something special. A big-league prospect. When Murff submitted his scouting report later he would write: “Has the best arm I’ve ever seen.” You don’t have to see it but one time to know it’s there, and Murff had seen it – and heard it – and would soon deliver Lynn Nolan Ryan to professional baseball.”
That’s just one famous example. In one very extensive and well-researched volume, Lowenfish details fascinating histories how the scouts found the players we now accept as legends, the players who did, and those who never reached their potential, the different types of scouts, their strategies and methods, and even the affects that the baseball draft and expansion had on scouting.
You might not know their names at first, but you will welcome their stories, such as Paul Krichell, who scouted for the Yankees throughout the heyday of their dynasties – from 1921 to 1957, or Tom Greenwade, who found Mickey Mantle, Billy Blitzer of the Chicago Cubs, or Art Stewart, who scouted for the Yankees and later the expansion Kansas City Royals, Charley Barrett of Branch Rickey’s St. Louis Cardinals, Tony Lucadello of the Phillies, Paul Snyder of the Braves, who signed Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones, et al.
It’s always bothered this baseball fan that scouts have also been relatively neglected by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Oh sure, there is a showcase that displays a stopwatch and a radar gun, and the names of scouts are sprinkled throughout its exhibits in regards to scouting reports and other mentions, but there should at least be a wing or a wall honoring a Scout of the Year, and those from the past, much like they fete broadcasters and sportswriters with annual awards.
There is also a Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, and at their annual affair, they honor their own, but it sure would be nice to see some of these baseball lifers honored in Cooperstown.
In a blurb for the book, future Hall of Fame manager Dusty Baker claims “Scouts are like the blues musicians of baseball, whose stories reveal the heart of the game.”
Other aspects of the profession Lowenfish explores include: the creation of the Major League Scouting Bureau in 1975, how Moneyball led to scouts being fired, and the pioneering history of Branch Rickey and his concept of a “farm system.”
Lowenfish is quite familiar with Rickey’s history, having chronicled his life in a previous tome: Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Bison Books, 2009). Lowenfish also authored: The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars (Bison books, 2010).
Baseball’s Endangered Species (University of Nebraska Press, hardcover, 344 pages, $34.95) is available wherever books are sold.