This article was originally published in July 2020, and was updated in December 2022.
Let's get into something fun. Let's talk about uniform numbers. Not necessarily the players wearing those numbers, as you've certainly seen many lists of in the past. (Like: "Ozzie Smith was the best No. 1, and Henry Aaron was the best No. 44," and so on.) No, let's talk about the numbers themselves. Which numbers have been the most productive? Maybe it's No. 27. Or No. 44. How about 3? Maybe, it's 3. There are 101 different options, counting 0 and 00 separately. See? We told you: Fun.
In order to find out, let's swing over to Baseball-Reference.com and dig into their uniform number database. Let's see how many Wins Above Replacement each uniform number has piled up over the century or so that numbers have been in place. (That last part is important; after an initial brief experiment or two in the 1910s and '20s, the '29 Yankees were the first to commit to it full-time, meaning most of Babe Ruth's best years are not included here, coming as they did with no uniform number. He only wore the legendary No. 3 for six seasons, during which time he accumulated 48.9 WAR, less than a third of his career total of 162.7 WAR.)
As far as we know, no one's ever done this before. Unfortunately, there's not really any such thing as a record of per-game uniform numbers -- even if there were you don't really want to split WAR on a per-game basis -- and also some players have had multiple numbers in a season. That's going to make this something more of a "very good estimate" than "an exact accounting," but let's put two rules into place to account for that:
• If a player gets traded and changes numbers in a season, each number gets the appropriate WAR credit. (Example: In 2008, Manny Ramirez piled up 2.5 WAR wearing No. 24 for the Red Sox, then 3.5 WAR wearing No. 99 for the Dodgers after being traded in July. We can split the same credit for No. 24 [2.5 WAR] and No. 99 [3.5 WAR] here.)
• If a player switches numbers within a season for the same team, the number he wore most in his career receives the full credit. (Example: In 1951, Willie Mays briefly wore No. 14 for his first few weeks before changing to his now-iconic No. 24. Because he wore 24 the most during his career, that number gets full credit for the season, while 14 gets nothing.)
Perfect? No, but close enough, and after running the numbers on that, we have a list of 101 digits. That's right: 101, because we're counting both 0 and 00 separately. Thanks to then-Yankee Miguel Yajure, who became the first player to ever wear No. 89 when he debuted in 2020, there's no longer any such thing as an unused number. Every single possible number has had at least one player wear it on the field.
Take that list of 101 numbers ordered by value, and it looks like this. This is the official all-time ranking. Those are some iconic digits at the top, before you get into Spring Training numbers near the bottom.
Or: how about this view? Aside from "the best players, and the most players, usually wear the lowest numbers," which you already knew, look at how many players are actually afraid of wearing No. 13. Look at how value declines starting at No. 25, then begins to completely fall apart after No. 50, before a slight uptick at 99. Look at a graph that is actually showing you uniform numbers, ranked, by WAR.
There are stories in each of those numbers. How did we get there? Who was most important while wearing each number? Let's break it down into groups, based on the rules we outlined above. (All numbers current through the end of the 2022 Major League season.)
This, we cannot stress enough, is a list of uniform numbers. Don't say you weren't warned. Enjoy.
THE TOP 10
Notable names: Albert Pujols, George Brett, Jeff Bagwell, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Joe DiMaggio
To be honest, we were surprised by this, since most pitchers don't wear single-digit numbers, and so we figured a number that both hitters and pitchers would wear would be at the top. Then again, No. 5 is a total murderers' row. In addition to those legends already named, there's Lou Boudreau, Hank Greenberg, Nomar Garciaparra, Freddie Freeman and on and on. Forty-nine different players put up at least 10 WAR wearing No. 5. Henry Aaron didn't, but 1.4 WAR of his legendary career counts here anyway, because he wore it for his rookie season in 1954 before switching to his now-iconic 44.
Notable names: Stan Musial, Al Kaline, Sal Bando, Willie Wilson, Tony Oliva, Steve Garvey
The half-dozen doesn't have quite the star power that 5 does, but it's even deeper; 57 different players put up at least 10 WAR with the 6, including Marcus Stroman, one of the few single-digit pitchers. Did you know Musial briefly wore 19 in Spring Training? Did you know Mickey Mantle actually wore 6 for months as a rookie? Neither did we.
Notable names: Mickey Mantle, Iván Rodríguez, Craig Biggio, Kenny Lofton, Joe Mauer, J.D. Drew
There can't be many more iconic combinations of player and number than Mantle and 7, right?
Notable names: Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin, Luis Aparicio, Toby Harrah, Carl Hubbell
That's four Hall of Famers listed there, plus Paul Waner and Lefty Gomez spent part of their careers with 11 as well. Through 2022, this is the deepest number, as 57 different players -- from Martinez at 68.4 WAR to Bill Mueller at 10.1 WAR -- have posted at least 10 WAR in the one-one, more than any other number.
Notable names: Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Miguel Cabrera, Dwight Evans
Now we're talking, so far as all-time stars go. But Henderson only spent about two-thirds of his career in the two-four (for example, he wore No. 35 the year he stole 130 bases), so the full value of his career isn't applied here. That's also true of Griffey (who wore 30, 3 and 17 after leaving Seattle), Manny Ramirez, and Barry Bonds, who wore 24 as a Pirate before turning to 25 with the Giants, since Mays owns the 24 for San Francisco.
Notable names: Roger Clemens, Warren Spahn, Roberto Clemente, Sammy Sosa, Arky Vaughan
The first number to get a big boost from pitchers. Three all-time inner-circle legends top this list, though it would have ranked even better had Clemens not worn 12 and then 22 for the Yankees and Astros. He contributed 101 WAR to 21 with Boston and Toronto, then 38.5 more WAR to 22, by our formula.
Today, the number is best remembered for Clemente, who briefly wore No. 13 in 1955 after arriving in the Majors, then quickly took the 21 that he'd wear for the rest of his career.
Notable names: Dick Allen, Carlos Beltrán, Tim Hudson, Dustin Pedroia, Red Ruffing, Thurman Munson
Allen, the 1964 NL Rookie of the Year and '72 AL Most Valuable Player, briefly wore 32 at the beginning of his career and 60 at the end, but he's identified most with 15, and he remains one of history's most underrated players.
Notable names: Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro, Buddy Bell, Tommy John, Mark McGwire
Remember, this is only accounting for Bonds' time with San Francisco, since he was 24 (and briefly 7) with Pittsburgh.
Notable names: Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Luke Appling, Duke Snider, Paul Molitor
When uniform numbers first came into existence, they were often assigned in accordance with lineup spot, which is why you see a few cleanup hitters atop the list here. Gehrig was already 111 homers into his career by the time the Yankees even starting wearing numbers, though, so this isn't his full career value.
Notable names: Chipper Jones, Lefty Grove, Ron Santo, Ron Cey, Andre Dawson
Jones briefly wore 16 when he arrived in the Majors, but soon switched to 10 to follow in his father's footsteps.
Notable names: Clayton Kershaw, Jim Palmer, Will Clark, Brad Radke, Andrew McCutchen
With another good season in 2022, Kershaw passed Palmer on the No. 22 WAR list, and he'll be there for years to come, because no one's even close. Of course, Juan Soto -- who made sure to keep it when he was traded from Washington to San Diego -- has plenty of time yet to make up the gap.
Notable names: Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn, Joey Votto, Bob Feller, Billy Pierce
"When [clubhouse manager Whitey Wietelmann] handed it to me, it was No. 19, said Gwynn, reminiscing about his Major League debut. "When I was looked at it, I was just happy it was lower than 53, which is the number I wore in Spring Training."
Notable names: Hal Newhouser, Whitey Ford, Dwight Gooden, Ted Lyons, Frank Viola
You might not remember Newhouser, but the Detroit native is the only pitcher to win back-to-back Most Valuable Player Awards, doing so for his hometown Tigers in 1944 and '45.
Notable names: Ted Williams, Reggie Jackson, Enos Slaughter, Minnie Miñoso, Graig Nettles
You'd think that a list headlined by Williams would rank higher, but he's carrying this group by himself, as he alone is worth nearly 10% of all No. 9 WAR ever. Jackson was a legend as well, of course, but about a third of his value came wearing 44, and after Slaughter, this one quickly turns into a list of very good players, not all-time greats.
Notable names: Jimmie Foxx, Alan Trammell, Alex Rodriguez, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Davis
"Where's the Babe?" you yell incredulously. He's in the top 10, but again, the Yankees didn't add numbers until 1929, by which time he was already 34 years old and 470 homers into his career.
Notable names: Todd Helton, Lance Berkman, Mark Grace, Dizzy Dean, Shohei Ohtani
Grace wore 17 for most of his 13 seasons with the Cubs, but it's pretty clear he's not going to be the most famous North Sider with the number. No matter what else happens, that's always going to be Kris Bryant. Worldwide, however, this is the number that millions see on Ohtani's back.
Notable names: Ryne Sandberg, Ted Simmons, Don Mattingly, Robin Ventura, Luis Tiant
It remains entertaining that if you were to watch a replay of the famous "Pine Tar Game" in 1983, you'll see a young Mattingly there ... wearing No. 46, as he did briefly at the beginning of his career.
Notable names: Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken, Jr., Joe Morgan, Gary Carter, Yogi Berra, Willie Stargell
This one starts out hot -- just look at all those Hall of Famers -- before falling off somewhat. Berra and fellow Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey each wore 8 in pinstripes; it was retired in honor of each of them in 1972.
Notable names: Ozzie Smith, Lou Whitaker, Pee Wee Reese, Richie Ashburn, Bobby Doerr
Sometimes, numbers take on a personality, and that's pretty clear true with the No. 1, which is almost universally worn by speedy middle infielders or defensively gifted center fielders, befitting the origins of uniform numbers as matching lineup positions. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, because the powerful Carlos Correa sported it during his time in Houston, but you're more likely to find a Jarrod Dyson or Garry Templeton than you are a Ruth or Gehrig here.
Notable names: Bert Blyleven, Cesar Cedeno, Wilbur Wood, Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado
Sometimes there's a great story behind a number, and sometimes, as Arenado noted, it's just what happens. "There's actually no reason," he said. "In spring training, my first big league camp, they give rookie guys 80 and big numbers like that, but I got 28, and it was a low number, so it was a cool thing. And that's just why I wear it."
Notable names: Derek Jeter, Charlie Gehringer, Troy Tulowitzki, Nellie Fox, Red Schoendienst
Notable names: Roberto Alomar, Mark Langston, Steve Finley, Dusty Baker, Alfonso Soriano
Baker has continued wearing No. 12 during his managerial career, because growing up in California, he idolized Dodgers outfielder Tommy Davis, who wore the dozen for the team from 1959 through 1966.
Notable names: Mike Trout, Juan Marichal, Vladimir Guerrero, Kevin Brown, Giancarlo Stanton, Carlton Fisk
This one just "feels" like an iconic baseball number, and for these names listed, it is. Trout has taken over ownership of the lead here, and he'll probably own it for the entire rest of baseball history.
Notable names: Mike Schmidt, Frank Robinson, Don Sutton, Jorge Posada, Lou Brock, Josh Donaldson
Schmidt wore No. 22 for his brief 13-game cup of coffee in 1972, but when outfielder Roger Freed was traded to Cleveland after the season, Schmidt claimed his iconic No. 20 for his rookie season in 1973, and wore it for the rest of his career -- except for a confusing road trip in 1982 where the team apparently forgot to pack Schmidt's jersey and he had to wear bullpen pitcher Hank King's 37 .
Notable names: Mel Harder, Johnny Damon, Ben Zobrist, Gene Tenace, Jason Kendall
Let's safely assume you don't remember Mel Harder. He spent 20 seasons pitching for Cleveland, from 1928-47, then was their pitching coach from '48 through '63. For nearly four decades, you could find Harder active and in uniform for the same team. More recently, 18 has become known in the Majors as being the favored number of Japanese pitchers, as Hiroki Kuroda, Kenta Maeda, Hisashi Iwakuma, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yusei Kikuchi have all worn it.
Notable names: Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Ken Boyer, Jim Rice
Rose played 24 seasons, and wore No. 14 for each of those seasons. Like many others, though, it was a happenstance. He'd worn No. 27 during his first Spring Training with the Reds in 1963, but when he showed up for Opening Day of that season, there was a 14 in his locker. Why? "Because I was a second baseman," Rose said in 2016 when the Reds retired his 14, "and 27 wasn't a good number for a second baseman, so I got 14." These things aren't always scientific, are they.
Notable names: Adrián Beltré, Rod Carew, John Smoltz, Mickey Lolich, Ken Singleton
This particular author's favored number.
Notable names: Tim Raines, Willie Randolph, Orlando Cepeda, Mel Stottlemyre, Nolan Ryan
Ryan only wore 30 for the Mets and Angels, not at all for the Astros or Rangers, with whom he spent 14 seasons wearing 34.
Notable names: Greg Maddux, Fergie Jenkins, Chuck Finley, Dave Winfield, Mike Piazza
Like Dickey and Berra sharing 8 for the Yankees, Maddux and Jenkins each have 31 retired for the Cubs.
Notable names: Larry Walker, Eddie Murray, José Canseco, Ron Hunt, Jim Barr
In case you're wondering if numbers matter, do recall what Sports Illustrated wrote about Walker in 1993:
"He wears number 33 and he was married on Nov. 3 at 3:33 and his phone number has as many threes in it as he can get the phone company to give him, and he takes three swings in the batter's box before he hits, six if he feels tight, or nine or 12, any multiple of three."
Notable names: Phil Niekro, Mike Mussina, Frank Thomas, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Rickey Henderson
Why does Verlander wear 35? He's been asking for it since college at Old Dominion, in part because of his childhood affinity for "the Big Hurt," Thomas.
Notable names: Wade Boggs, Chase Utley, Billy Williams, Amos Otis, Boog Powell
Boggs wore the 26 for his 11 seasons with Boston, but took No. 12 when he moved on to the Yankees and Devil Rays.
Notable names: David Ortiz, Kirby Puckett, Félix Hernández, Fernando Valenzuela, Nolan Ryan
Ortiz had No. 27 in Minnesota, and there wasn't exactly a mystery as to why he claimed 34 when he moved to Boston in 2003. It was to honor Puckett, who finished his Twins career just before Ortiz started his own.
Notable names: Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, Roy Halladay, Milt Pappas, Jon Matlack
This one may not rate quite as high as some others, but 32 just looks like a baseball number, doesn't it?
Notable names: Gaylord Perry, Robin Roberts, Jerry Koosman, Jim Kaat, Tom Gordon
Perry was nothing if not loyal to his number. He briefly wore numbers 22, 28, and 25 in his first two years as a Giant, then claimed the 36 in 1963. He'd then play for seven more teams after leaving the Giants, and, when he could get it, he'd wear 36 for each and every one of them.
Notable names: Henry Aaron, Willie McCovey, Roy Oswalt, Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Peavy
Aaron was the first and only player to wear No. 44 for the Atlanta Braves, carrying it over with the team from Milwaukee, and he was the first player to have his number retired by two teams when the Brewers did so in 1977.
Notable names: Tom Seaver, Eddie Mathews, John Lackey, Darrell Evans, Pat Hentgen
Seager is so synonymous with 41, the only number he wore for any of the four teams he played for, that in 2022, his hometown of Fresno, Calif., honored him by renaming part of Highway 41 the "Tom Seaver Memorial Highway."
Notable names: Alex Rodriguez, Omar Vizquel, Dave Concepción, Lance Parrish, Manny Machado
The unlucky 13, at least in the eyes of some players. It's not a coincidence that as we're in the midst of a glut of high 30s and mid 40s here, 13 stands out like a sore thumb. Vizquel, as well as fellow Venezuelan shortstop Ozzie Guillen, each claimed they wore 13 to honor Concepción, a nine time All-Star who was the shortstop on the Big Red Machine Cincinnati teams of the 70s. Machado had an entirely different reason: His favorite number was 3 growing up, and his favorite player was Chipper Jones, so his 3, plus Jones' 10 ... 13.
Notable names: Dave Stieb, Kenny Rogers, Keith Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg
Note that this is only St. Louis Hernandez. When he was traded to the Mets in 1983, they'd already retired 37 for Casey Stengel, so Hernandez took 17.
Notable names: Bartolo Colon, Madison Bumgarner, Frank Tanana, Andy Benes, Rick Sutcliffe
Bumgarner kept his 40 with Arizona, having made a deal with reliever Andrew Chafin after signing with the D-backs to retain his number from his glory days with San Francisco.
Notable names: Dave Parker, Roy Campanella, Mike Greenwell, Kevin Kiermaier
Parker wore 39 for six teams over 19 seasons, but he's best-known for doing it with the Pirates. In 2018, then-Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl said that he “felt bad taking 39 because of Dave Parker,” and that he "tried to change it, but they said it was too late to change it."
Notable names: Curt Schilling, Carlos Zambrano, Gary Nolan, Rick Aguilera
As of 2022, reliever Joe Smith, a 15-year-veteran, had carried the three-eight with him from Cleveland to the Angels to the Blue Jays to Houston and finally to Minnesota.
Notable names: Bob Gibson, Pedro Martínez, Steve Rogers, John Candelaria
How does a number led by those two legendary aces not rank higher? Because beyond them, it's relatively thin. Also included on the Top 10 here are Kelvim Escobar and Stan Bahnsen, and you don't know who Stan Bahnsen is.
Notable names: Rick Reuschel, Torii Hunter, Sam McDowell, Jacob deGrom, Travis Hafner
Hunter had worn 48 for the first 16 years of his career, but it was owned by Rick Porcello when the outfielder signed with Detroit after the 2012 season. Porcello, a New Jersey native, traded it to Hunter in exchange for a donation to a Hurricane Sandy relief program.
Notable names: Dennis Eckersley, Johnny Antonelli, Raúl Mondesí, Gary Peters, Ken Forsch
Eckersley wore No. 37 as a young pitcher for Cleveland, but when he was traded to Boston in 1975, "Spaceman" Bill Lee already owned it. As the Athletic detailed, 43 was issued by the clubhouse manager, which Eckersley would wear for the rest of his career, except for his Cubs debut in 1984, which had him wearing 40 before he was able to switch back.
Notable names: Andy Pettitte, Jim Maloney, Kevin Gross, Burt Hooton, Ryan Dempster, Craig Kimbrel
Paul Goldschmidt, the 2022 NL MVP, wore 44 with Arizona, but he took 46 upon his trade to the Cardinals, saying that it was the closest number to 44 available, because 44 was taken at the time and 45 was retired for Bob Gibson.
Notable names: Ron Guidry, Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, Larry Dierker
Forty-nine: The official number of knuckleballers everywhere.
Notable names: Tom Glavine, Jack Morris, Bruce Hurst, Howie Kendrick, Johnny Cueto
Glavine was handed 47 seemingly at random in his first Spring Training. "I was just happy it wasn’t the other way around, happy it wasn’t a 74,” he later joked.
Notable names: Randy Johnson, Ichiro Suzuki, Bernie Williams, Willie McGree, Trevor Hoffman
Johnson wore 51 with Seattle from 1989-98 -- save for a brief game with 15 here and 34 there -- and then Ichiro wore it as a Mariner from 2001-12. That's nearly a quarter-century, with one team, on the backs of two legends. Not a bad run for the five-one in the Pacific Northwest.
Notable names: Mookie Betts, Adam Wainwright, Jamie Moyer, Sid Fernandez, J.R. Richard
Betts was once asked why he wears 50. "I keep No. 50 because no one wants it," he said. OK then. He's already the greatest player ever to wear it.
OK, it's time to lightning round this by showing all of the 51st-through-75th-ranked numbers together here. As you'd expect by this point, we're starting to get into numbers that just aren't worn that often, though there are still some exceptions to this rule.
Lots of 50s, 60s and 70s here, as you'd expect. This part of the list is led by No. 42, but it's the only number that's guaranteed to fall down, not go up, because it's of course retired sport-wide in honor of Jackie Robinson. (While it is worn by every player each April 15 on Jackie Robinson day, those one-day WAR totals don't get included in our list-making.)
Despite the less-popular numbers here in this group, there's still a number of huge stars to have worn them.
Mark Buehrle, for example, put up 60 WAR in his 56, and Johan Santana posted 52 WAR in his 57. Jonathan Papelbon (23.3 WAR) was a strong 58, and Livan Hernandez, Bronson Arroyo, and Chan Ho Park all found success in 61. Orel Hershiser won the 1988 NL Cy Young wearing his No. 55. Many years later, Skip Schumaker also wore 55, thanks to a memory he'd had of an interaction with Hershiser when Schumaker was just six years old.
No. 54 is especially interesting because it's a pitcher's number, and only a pitcher's number. The top 35 names on our No. 54 list are arms, until you get to Junior Félix, an outfielder who wore it for a single season as a rookie for the 1989 Blue Jays.
What's most interesting about this group are the two numbers that are a little different -- 99 and 0. For years, 99 was an outcast, worn briefly by players you don't remember (Darren Clarke in 2007), or players who reveled in being different (Turk Wendell on and off from 1997-2004, Ramirez with the Dodgers and White Sox in 2008-10).
But over the past few seasons, two star-caliber players -- Hyun-jin Ryu, then Aaron Judge -- have had great success in the nine-nine, helping it to shoot up these ratings. You've seen it on Taijuan Walker, and Alex Verdugo. It's not weird anymore.
As for the 0, note that this is different than the 00. Former outfielder Mallex Smith explains that he chose it because he has "zero cares" about how others feel about him, which we respect, but most of the 0s do it as a play on their own names, considering it not a "zero" so much as an "O." That began with Al Oliver, and others like Adam Ottavino, Oddibe McDowell, Junior Ortiz and Rey Ordóñez have followed suit.
Le's finish this off with the final group ...
And, of course, we reach the end of the line. Through 2022, only six players have put up even 5 WAR in one of these numbers.
- 84 Dylan Cease, 9.3 WAR
- 73 Felipe Vazquez, 8.3 WAR
- 88 Luis Robert, 7.5 WAR
- 73 Ricardo Rincon, 7.3 WAR
- 97 Joe Beimel, 6.7 WAR
- 96 Bill Voiselle, 5.7 WAR
You can also see here that the double-zero is rarer than the regular zero; although Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark and Don Baylor all wore it briefly -- very briefly -- no one's donned it since Brian Wilson with the Dodgers in 2014.
As we said: Every number, a story.