Mike Leake becomes a rare single-digit-wearing pitcher
Mike Leake was just formally announced as the newest member of the St. Louis Cardinals. At his press conference they showed his jersey: number 8. Which is really, really unusual for a pitcher.
Indeed, pitchers hardly ever wear single-digit numbers. At any given time there are a couple around. Marcus Stroman is the only one I could think of off the top of my head. He wears number 6. I asked Twitter for others and was reminded that Adam Ottavino wears 0. Kyle Drabek did before 2015 but he switched when he joined the White Sox. That may be the entire list.
Ten years ago Stefan Fastis of the Wall Street Journal wrote a story about single-digit pitchers. In it he explained the historical basis for the practice. The first team to go with numbers and stick with them was the Yankees, and they assigned numbers by batting order position. The number three hitter was #3 Babe Ruth, the cleanup hitter was #4 Lou Gehrig, etc. Catchers -- like Bill Dickey -- wore 8. A pitcher batted ninth but the backup catcher would get 9 and backup fielders the lower double digit numbers. Eventually, someplace in the teens, you’d get to the pitchers. That system eventually broke down, but the tradition remained.
Fastis’ story also revealed, however, that in modern times pitchers rarely wearing single digits is simply a matter of tradition and superstition and irrational aesthetic preference. There he talked to an equipment manager and a historian about it and it was revealed that it just seems weird to people for a pitcher to have a single digit. The story also contains a very Reggie Jackson quote about just how WRONG it was for a pitcher to wear a single digit. Like so many things in baseball, it’s just a matter of calcified orthodoxy. Like “playing the game the right way.”
Which makes Leake’s choice even more fun. I mean, Leake plays for the St. Louis Cardinals. A club which, justified or not, is often accused of absolutely abhorring the notion of people not playing the game the right way. Here’s hoping he sticks to his number 8 and isn’t told that he needs to do things . . . by the numbers.