What is the most iconic uniform number in North American sport? The easiest way to find out is by looking at the “G.O.A.T.” – Greatest of All Time player – for each major league; a number always becomes iconic because of the athlete(s) that wore it.
Basketball and hockey are unique in that each has a somewhat-universally-agreed-upon G.O.A.T. You can probably guess who those athletes are: Michael Jordan (No. 23) for basketball, and Wayne Gretzky (99) for hockey. Yes, there’s still debate on this, it depends on your generation and what you value. But, generally speaking, there’s consensus.
It’s hard to pin down one G.O.A.T. for football as each position is so different. Jim Brown (32) is widely seen as the greatest running back of all time, for example, but that title doesn't expand to the sport as a whole.
Baseball is a little easier – many would say Babe Ruth (3) is the greatest as he was a revolutionary hitter and also a strong pitcher, early on. He did play before integration, however, which for some is an asterisk. Others might say Ted Williams (9), but he was really a pure hitter. Willie Mays (24) has a very good case for G.O.A.T. He did only win one title, though, which could be a problem for some.
Of course, baseball does have one number – Jackie Robinson’s 42 – retired by all Major and Minor League teams, a significant fact. Robinson was an amazing athlete, but this act was largely due to the significance of him breaking the colour barrier in 1947. Robinson’s feat of strength – not only physical, but mental and emotional – transcends sport and is rightly a human rights landmark.
In my mind, based on what Robinson achieved, and on the fact that his number is off-limits to baseball on the whole, 42 is the clear winner – it is the most iconic uniform number. It’s also very much tied to Robinson; when you think of 42 you think of him. (The only other notable player to wear that number would be Mariano Rivera, the all-time-great closer, to whom it was given before being retired.)
But, there is something interesting to consider: 42 is not the only number that has seen league-wide retirement in North America. Wayne Gretzky’s 99 has been retired by the NHL. This was surprising to me, especially when you consider Gretzky’s contemporary, Michael Jordan, has not seen a similar honour bestowed upon him by the NBA.
Both athletes made their uniform numbers iconic, and yet only one is off limits. And these numbers did not always have the cachet they do now… 23 and 99 are eternally tied to Jordan and Gretzky because of Jordan and Gretzky. You can’t avoid the connection. Even David Beckham, the first European soccer star to break it big in the North American pop-culture scene, “chose number 23 [while with Real Madrid and LA Galaxy] because of Jordan.”
(It’s understood that while growing up, Jordan actually wanted number 45 because it was what his older brother wore while playing varsity basketball. He ended up going with 23 as, according to Russ Bengston for air.jordan.com, it “was as close to half of 45 as he could get.” Gretzky had the same idea. Gordie Howe, who wore number 9, was his hero, so Gretzky wanted to wear it too. Nine was already taken by another on his team, however, so, after stints with 19 and 14, he settled on 99.)
Jordan and his number have the advantage over Gretzky when it comes to global recognition and branding. Both athletes transcend their sports, but basketball has a bigger following worldwide. Jordan was part of the ‘Dream Team’ that took part in the Olympics, and he starred in a feature flick with the Looney Tunes, Space Jam. Then there’s the Air Jordan brand. MJ signed a shoe deal with Nike back in the ‘80s and, as we all know, it became massive. Jordan sneakers are their own phenomenon; people line-up overnight for new releases and build crazy collections. Gretzky now owns a line of whisky and wine, but it’s got nothing on Air Jordan.
So why hasn't the NBA retired 23? Michael Jordan has done as much if not more for the sport of basketball than Wayne Gretzky has for hockey. You could easily argue that the NBA would not be the hugely popular, trend-setting league it is today without the 23.
Is it because too many other players, current stars like LeBron James, have worn it at this point? According to basketball-reference.com, 236 players have worn No. 23 in the NBA and ABA. That’s a lot. By contrast, you can count on one hand the guys that have worn 99 in the NHL; three different players wore the same 99 sweater for the Canadiens in the 1930s, and two more had the number at the same time as Gretzky. So, because so few have worn it – and because The Great One was, well, so great – retiring 99 was an easy move.
Retiring 23 is obviously more complicated. Try looking at it a different way though: Jordan was so talented, so influential, that he still made 23 his own despite the 235 other guys in the room. That’s impressive.
Again, for me, Jackie Robinson’s 42 is the clear winner of Most Iconic Uniform Number in North American Sport. But 23 and 99 are there too, filling out the podium, and so it feels wrong that Robinson and Gretzky have seen the honour of league-wide retirement while Jordan hasn’t. The NHL and NBA are entirely different entities, of course, but to make things right, Jordan’s number should be retired. Come on, Commissioner Silver, get to it!