When the Reading Red Roses took the field in 1907, they changed sports history forever. Manager Alfred Lawson chose to put numbers on his team’s jerseys in order for fans to easily identify each of the players. Tales of numbers on uniforms were common in the late 19th century, but the practice did not receive widespread acceptance until the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees donned them for the 1929 season. By the 1930’s numbers on uniforms were standard practice for Major League Baseball teams and were common in other sports like football and hockey.
Numbers are now considered a common feature for uniforms in every team sport. For certain teams, some numbers hold a special place in club lore and the hearts of the fans. These numbers can be passed down from one club legend to the next, as the tradition is in soccer. In many other sports, numbers of club legends are retired from use and placed in the rafters to be revered by generations of fans. These players have left a lasting impression on their respective teams.
In modern sports, athletes are valuable assets that are the centerpiece of advertising campaigns and the faces of their organizations. Players carefully cultivate their public images in order to maximize their value on and off the field of play. However, many athletes remain inseparable from their on-field persona and the uniform that they wear. As time passes, these athletes will be remembered for the accomplishments achieved while wearing their preferred numbers.
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15 #7 at Liverpool
The #7 shirt at Liverpool has a long and storied history that has seen some of the club’s best players wear the number. The #7 has been passed down from Kevin Keegan to Kenny Daglish to Luis Suarez, and many others have held the honor of wearing the most iconic number for one of England’s most decorated football clubs. Most recently, Suarez brought the shirt some disgrace with his on-field antics, but he also helped Liverpool mount their best title challenge in over a decade. The number is currently vacant at the club, just waiting for the next legend to don the famous #7.
14 Magic Johnson's #32
When Magic Johnson was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, he had to change his #33 from Michigan State, which belonged to the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The switch worked because Magic and the Showtime Lakers won the NBA Title in 1980 and would go on to win four more before the end of Magic’s career. Magic’s versatility allowed him to play all five positions on the court, and he earned three MVP Awards in both the regular season and NBA Finals. He overcame an HIV diagnosis and has continued his success off the court in the business world. Johnson can now be considered one of the most successful athletes of all time.
13 Dan Marino's #13
Dan Marino, practically reversed the belief that 13 is an unlucky number. Triskaidekaphobic football fans dreaded the Sundays when Marino and the Miami Dolphins rolled into town, because it usually meant their defense was in for a long day. Marino is one of the most prolific passers in the history of the NFL, amassing 61,361 yards during his seventeen seasons in the league. His #13 is retired by both the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Miami Dolphins, and he is the greatest quarterback to ever wear the number.
12 Jim Brown's #32
Jim Brown’s career in the National Football League only lasted nine seasons, but his impact on the game has lasted through history. Brown is widely considered one of the greatest running backs of all time, thanks to his brutal yet elegant rushing style. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his nine NFL seasons, led the league in rushing eight times, and earned four MVP awards. His #32 has been retired by the Cleveland Browns. Brown has inspired generations of running backs to wear #32 in his honor including Marcus Allen and OJ Simpson.
11 Mario Lemieux's #66
Mario Lemieux is a hero to many hockey fans, but not only because of his contributions to the Pittsburgh Penguins on the ice. While sporting the #66, he helped the Penguins lift the Stanley Cup twice, won three Hart Trophies, and earned six Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer. Lemieux also overcame Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which caused him to miss the entire 1994-95 season. He then cemented his status as a hockey legend when he secured ownership of the Penguins and stopped them from moving to Kansas City. Lemieux was rewarded for his efforts with a third Stanley Cup, which he won as the owner in 2009.
10 Deion Sanders' #21
Deion Sanders dazzled the nation as he high stepped into the end zone after interceptions and punt returns, frustrating football purists and giving birth to the moniker Prime Time. The two sport star wore #21 on both the football field and baseball diamond, and holds the honor of being the only athlete to hit a home run and score a touchdown in the same week. Aside from the final stop of his football career in Baltimore, he wore #21 for his other four teams. He has been inducted into the Pro and College Football Hall of Fames as well as the Atlanta Falcons ring of honor.
9 Jerry Rice's #80
Jerry Rice is unquestionably the greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL. Rice’s legendary hands were developed throughout his childhood, when he worked as a brick mason. Over the course of his prolific career, he wore the #80 for three different teams, but is best remembered for wearing it in the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers. During his time with the 49ers, Rice won three Super Bowls and led the league in receiving yardage six times.
8 John Elway's #7
Over the course of his entire sixteen season NFL career, John Elway became regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Elway played all sixteen seasons with the Denver Broncos wearing the #7. Elway retired following two consecutive Super Bowl wins and appeared in five Super Bowls. He retired with the most wins of any quarterback in NFL history (which would later be broken by Favre, Brady, and Manning). He was also the second most prolific passer in NFL history, with 51,475 career passing yards, despite only leading the NFL in passing yardage once. Elway possessed an uncanny ability to lead his teams to victory when they trailed late in games.
7 Cristiano Ronaldo's #7
Cristiano Ronaldo’s image is inseparable from his favored #7. CR7, as he is known to many fans around the world, is possibly the greatest player among this current generation of footballers. He scores goals at an unbelievable pace and in a variety of ways, which makes him an absolute nightmare for opposing defenders. He has worn the iconic #7 for Manchester United as well as the Portuguese National Team and his current club Real Madrid. At every turn, Ronaldo has succeeded and proved to be the best. This May, he earned his second UEFA Champions League title and scored in the Final against Atletico Madrid.
6 Derek Jeter's #2
The countdown has begun for when the New York Yankees will retire the #2 of their recently retired shortstop, Derek Jeter. Jeter was the cornerstone of the Yankees during their tremendous success in the 1990s and 2000s. As captain of the Yankees, Jeter epitomized the club’s ideals and excelled on the field. Jeter was named to fourteen All-Star teams and won the World Series five times during his career with the Bronx Bombers. Jeter is an iconic figure from a club renowned for outstanding players and has stood out among the game’s all-time greats.
5 #7 at Manchester United
The #7 shirt at Manchester United has been worn by several of the greatest players of all time. George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo have all sported the #7 during their successful exploits with the club. Angel Di Maria currently wears the #7 shirt after his blockbuster transfer deal this summer. Not every player to wear the #7 has found success with the club, but it has been donned by icons that have had a lasting impact on the beautiful game. Di Maria will be the next to carry on the tradition associated with the #7 at Man U.
4 Wayne Gretzky's #99
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, can easily be identified by his #99. He amazed hockey fans from the moment he stepped onto the ice with the Edmonton Oilers in 1978. Gretzky won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers during the 1980s, before he was dealt in a blockbuster deal to the Los Angeles Kings. He retired as the all-time leader in goals scored with 894 and holds the all-time lead in assists with 1,963. His #99 is retired throughout the NHL, never to be worn by another player again. He is the only player in the history of the league to receive this honor.
3 Babe Ruth's #3
George Herman Ruth, better known as The Babe, the Sultan of Swat, or the Great Bambino was the greatest hitter during one the greatest eras in the history of baseball. He was a larger than life figure that was known for crushing home runs and winning seven World Series titles. He wore the #3 for his entire baseball career and has had that number retired by the New York Yankees. His accomplishments on the baseball diamond are virtually unparalleled over the course of a century of baseball history.
2 Jackie Robinson’s #42
Jackie Robison’s contribution to baseball and American society are so significant that he holds the honor of being the only player to have his number retired across Major League Baseball. Robinson broke Major League’s Baseball color barrier, becoming the first black man to play in the league since the 1880s. Robinson possessed tremendous self-control, enduring racial slurs, death threats, and hostile fans around the country. Robinson was a six-time All-Star, World Series Champion, and the 1949 National League MVP. Robinson’s #42 will never be worn by another Major League baseball player.
1 Michael Jordan’s #23
Michael Jordan’s #23 is the most iconic number in the history of sports. Jordan is widely considered to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, with six NBA titles, five MVP awards, and fourteen All-Star Game appearances. For most of his career, Jordan sported the #23, except for one season during which he donned #45 after his return from retirement. Jordan adopted the number in high school because his brother wore his preferred #45. So, Jordan divided it in half and wore #23. #23 is now retired by both the Chicago Bulls and North Carolina Tar Heels. Jordan’s incredible career has inspired hundreds of athletes to wear #23, including LeBron James.
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