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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Monday, May 16, 2005

I'll Sell You the Shirt Off My Back

When running back Clinton Portis joined the Washington Redskins last year, he wanted to wear Number 26, the number he'd worn during his two seasons with the Denver Broncos.
But the number belonged to defensive back Ifeanyi Ohalete, who had been wearing it for three seasons in Washington, so Portis agreed to buy it.
Now Ohalete is suing Portis for breach of contract. He claims that Portis promised to pay him $40,000 for Number 26, but stopped making payments after Ohalete was cut by the Redskins last August. The suit alleges that Portis still owes him $20,000.
This numbers racketeering is a relatively new phenomenon among professional athletes.
When the New York Yankees became the first team to make numbers a permanent uniform feature, in 1929, a player's numnber was simply his spot in the batting order. Babe Ruth was Number 3 because he usually hit third and Lou Gehrig, as the cleanup hitter, wore Number 4.
(Steve Sax wore Number 3 for eight seasons with the Dodgers. When he joined the Yankees in 1989, he was foolish enough to ask for that number. Any baseball fan could have told him that no Yankee except Babe Ruth had ever worn Number 3, but Sax was a second baseman, not a fan.)
Numbers meant even less in pro football. A player usually, but not always, wore the same number for an entire season, but it was likely to change from one season to the next. Mike Michalske, the Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, wore nine different numbers, ranging from 19 through 63, in his eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
Since then, numbers have become closely identified with players, and vice versa. I would guess that trading cards, television, and the sports memorabilia industry have been the chief engines of transformation.
On the other hand, the player identifying with the number is probably simple superstitition. If a player has had success wearing a certain number and wants to keep wearing it, that's understandable, sort of. It sure beats wearing the same pair of socks for an entire career.