Why Do Numbers Get Retired in Sports?

(Last Updated On: April 11, 2019)

Why Do Numbers Get Retired in Sports?

Retired Sports Numbers

If you’re even a little bit familiar with sports, you probably know that players wear numbered uniforms. You’re also probably aware that sports leagues both in and out of North America retire certain numbers from use on jerseys. And maybe that’s where your knowledge of this “sportsball” ends.

When a sports jersey is retired by a team, it means that no future team members get to wear that number (though sometimes exceptions are made in special cases). Occasionally, a number might be “unofficially retired”, and it becomes an unspoken rule that people aren’t going to be wearing that number.  

For those curious, the first professional number to be retired was done so by the Toronto Maple Leafs. They retired the number 6 in 1934, after the career ending injury of hockey player Ace Bailey.

But injuries aren’t the only reason numbers get retired in sports.

Why do Numbers Get Retired?

There’s no strict formula for when or why a number is retired, and a team can generally choose to do so for whatever reason. With some common sense and critical thinking, you can infer that numbers are typically retired for players with especially memorable careers, or for team members who have passed away.

Now and again, teams choose to retire a number specific to their fans. This is often the number of players on a given side plus one. So in American football, where each side has 11 players, the number 12 is retired by some teams as a dedication to the fans.

Teams don’t always retire numbers for sports-related endeavors, though. Gerald Ford had his number (48) retired by the University of Michigan when he became, you know, president.

Do Numbers Ever Get Retired by an Entire League?

Even though numbers get retired for reasons independent to each team, you might be wondering if numbers have ever been retired for an entire league. The answer to that question is yes! Jackie Robinson of the MLB and Wayne Gretzky of the NHL both have had their numbers retired across their respective leagues, albeit for differing reasons.

A civil rights activist, Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers marked the end of racial segregation within the MLB, which at the time had separate leagues for African American players. His number, 42, was retired in 1997 across the entirety of the MLB, even spawning an annual tradition within the league. Jackie Robinson Day takes place on April 15th, marking his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and on this day, all players wear his number 42.

Wayne Gretzky had his 99 retired in 1999 by the entirety of the NHL. This was done so because, simply put, many believe him to be the greatest hockey player of all time. I mean, he was literally nicknamed “The Great One” after all, holding an impressive 61 NHL records and being the only NHL player to score over 200 in one season (which he did 4 separate times).

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About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.