A Single-Digit Salute


Rob Bell and Wayne Gomes were among the lower-profile pitchers to be traded this summer, but that’s not all they have in common. With Bell taking uniform No. 6 after being dealt to the Rangers in June and Gomes donning No. 2 upon joining the Giants in July, they also became members of an elite fraternity: According to Jack Looney of the Society for American Baseball Research, Bell and Gomes are only the 10th and 11th pitchers since 1960 to wear single-digit uni numbers, and are the first pair of hurlers to do so in the same season since Jack Jenkins of the Senators (No. 1) and Bob Priddy of the Pirates (No. 8) in 1962.

All of which leads us to wonder: Why do pitchers usually wear double-digit numbers, especially since there’s no corresponding numerical protocol for position players? Mark Stang, author of the seminal Baseball by the Numbers, isn’t sure. “If you look at scorecards from 1931 and 1932 [when uniform numbers were first coming into vogue], you’ll find pitchers like Lefty Gomez and Carl Hubbell wearing number 11,” he says. “Catchers usually wore 8 through 10, so pitchers’ numbers usually started after that, but there was never any set pattern.” Sportswriter Bill Arnold recently wrote, “Teams tended to assign the manager number 1 and the starting position players numbers 2 through 9. That left only double digits for the starting pitchers.”

Whatever the double-digit tradition’s source, it’s deeply ingrained by now. So what led Bell and Gomes to buck it? An irritable Giants spokesman insisted to us that Gomes chose his number “just because, and that’s all he has to say about it,” although this overly defensive posture invites speculation to the contrary (Our hunch: unresolved fantasies of playing shortstop). Bell, meanwhile, has said he simply wanted the lowest number available. In any case, with Bell’s earned run average at 6.62 through this past weekend, and Gomes’s at 4.31, they may soon have a new distinction: the first pair of pitchers to finish with ERAs higher than their uniform numbers.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2001

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