As kids, we all had a favorite baseball player and even though we may not have known everything about him, we certainly had a firm grasp on his uniform number. In the 50's, if Ted Kluszewski was your guy, you knew that his sleeveless Cincinnati Reds jersey had #18 on the back. If Pete Rose was your idol in the 60's and 70's, it was a pretty good bet that #14 was on the back of your Little League jersey. And younger fans certainly know about Mike Piazza's #31, Mariano Rivera's #42 and Trevor Hoffman's #51.
Uniform numbers weren't really utilized in Major League Baseball until the 1929 season. The Indians and Yankees were the first two teams to make the decision and other teams eventually came around to the idea during the 1930's with the Philadelphia Athletics being the last hold-out until 1937. The idea was so much of an afterthought, the numbers were originally assigned by the batting order (1-8) of the teams. #9 would be given to the backup catcher and the starting pitchers wore numbers 10-14, not including the bad luck #13.
Today, we'll look at the best players who wore a single digit number on the back of their uniform and what it might take to collect all of their rookie (or early) baseball cards. As always, the values are based on a card in "Near Mint" (NM 7) condition.
> #0 Al Oliver - It is a slight stretch to include this one on our list because the player was really wearing the letter "O" on his back rather than a zero. An outstanding hitter in his day, Oliver wore the number from 1978 until his retirement after the 1985 season. In 18 seasons, he hit .303 and accumulated over 2,700 hits. He shares his rookie card with Richie Hebner in the 1969 Topps set and you can find it for about $5.
> #1 Ozzie Smith - This Hall of Fame shortstop known as "The Wizard" wore the number for his entire 19-year career, first with the Padres and then with the Cardinals. His rookie card from the 1979 Topps set is difficult to find in nice condition due to quality-control issues and will set you back at least $50.
> #2 Derek Jeter - The first Yankee to wear this number (in 1929) was outfielder Mark Koenig. Jeter's 3,000+ hits and multiple World Series rings makes him a first ballot Hall of Famer when his career ends. A number of his rookie cards from 1993 can be had in the $10-$20 range but the more scarce one from the SP set is valued at almost $100.
> #3 Babe Ruth - "The Bambino", "The Sultan of Swat" and the most legendary player of all time. His career statistics, as a pitcher and a hitter, are mind-boggling. His actual rookie card from the 1916 Sporting News set would cost you the price of a decent house, but a more mainstream one from the 1933 Goudey set is only worth $15,000.
> #4 Lou Gehrig - "The Iron Horse" hit behind the Babe in the Yankee lineup and will forever be remembered for his consecutive game streak and the tragic illness that took him much too early in life. If you've never seen "Pride of the Yankees" (1942) starring Gary Cooper, you can't really call yourself a true baseball fan. There are some obscure Gehrig cards from the 1920's but the 1932 U.S. Caramel version can be had for around $10,000.
> #5 Joe DiMaggio - "Joltin Joe", "The Yankee Clipper" and a hero to Simon & Garfunkel, this centerfielder will always be legendary due to his 56-game hitting streak, three MVP awards, 10 World Series appearances and marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He only played 13 seasons due to three years serving in the military during World War II, but his .977 lifetime OPS tells the story. The 1938 Goudey set has two Joe D. cards and they're worth about $5,000 each.
> #6 Stan Musial - Arguably the most under-appreciated player ever, "Stan The Man" wore this number for his entire 22-year career with the Cardinals. A lifetime batting average of .331 and over 3,600 hits gives some perspective on his career. His rookie card is in the 1948 Bowman set and books for $1,250.
> #7 Mickey Mantle - "The Mick" actually wore #6 in his 1951 rookie season, but became synonymous with #7 in baseball lore. One of the great natural talents to ever play the game, his three MVP awards in the 50's and 60's only touch the surface of his impact on the game. His rookie card from 1951 Bowman is valued at $10,500 but the second-year card from the iconic 1952 Topps set can be yours if you're willing to trade in your $35,000 car.
> #8 Cal Ripken Jr. - "The Iron Man" wore this number for 21 seasons with the Orioles and his 2,632 consecutive game streak eclipsed Gehrig's record. Rookie of the Year in 1982, two MVP's and 19 straight All-Star games prove his consistency. His 1982 Topps rookie card is about $30.
> #9 Ted Williams - "The Kid", "Teddy Ballgame" and "The Splendid Splinter", he was the greatest hitter of all-time. Missed five full seasons in his prime due to military service and still hit 525 home runs. The last player to hit .400, his lifetime OPS of 1.116 is 2nd only to Ruth. His rookie card from the 1939 Play Ball set is valued at around $2,500.
There are certainly valid arguments on some of these numbers. Harmon Killebrew is a great runner-up on #3, as is Duke Snider at #4. Some may feel that Al Kaline gives Musial a run for his money at #6 and Carl Yastrzemski, Yogi Berra and Joe Morgan all wore #8.
Down the road, we'll look at more uniform numbers and the stars that made them famous.