Across the expanse of grass and dirt at Busch Stadium, along the left field wall, a row of faces and names are honored. Each of these greats has a uniform number - now retired from use - displayed with their name. Even Former Owner Gussie Busch has the number 85 retired - done in honor of his 85th birthday.
But for one player, Cardinal Great and Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, there is no number. (Okay, Jack Buck doesn’t have a number either, but dude was a broadcaster.)
The explanation, delivered from parents to curious children probably every single day the park is open, is that Hornsby played before players wore uniform numbers. And that is mostly true... but it’s not the whole story.
The National League required all teams to add numbers to their uniforms in 1932. And while some dragged their feet in getting them applied, by 1933 all teams featured uniforms on the back as a permanent fixture. Hornsby returned to the Cardinals that season, after spending five seasons bouncing around between the Giants, Braves and Cubs. We know from numerous sources that Hornsby wore #4 that season. He would be released on July 26 and signed with the Browns, where he wore #16. In subsequent seasons, he would wear #11 and #4 with the Browns.
So, there you have it. Rogers Hornsby wore #4 as a Cardinal, so the Cardinals should retire #4 and never allow another player to wear that number...
That’s just one year at the tail-end of his career where we know Hornsby wore #4 as a Cardinal, but in fact he also wore a uniform number during two of his prime seasons, when the Cardinals were the very first National League team to use uniform numbers.
According the the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the oldest photographic evidence of numbers on a uniform were from a Cuban Stars team in 1909. The Cleveland Indians were the first major league team to experiment with uniform numbers in 1916, then again in 1917. The numbers were also printed in the program, allowing fans to better identify individual members of the pack of dirty white guys on the field.
Heading into the 1923 season, the Cardinals added numbers to their uniforms. Just as with the Indians and Cuban Stars before, the numbers were affixed to the sleeve. The change was reportedly the idea of Sportswriter John Sheridan, and implemented by Manager Branch Rickey. It appears the numbers were used on the primary home jersey as well as an alternate jersey, though not on their standard road uniform.
It is widely reported that the Cardinals abandoned the numbers after or even during the 1923 season. The reason given is that, similar to the Indians teams who experimented with numbers, opposing fans were given too much fodder to heckle with.
“Ridicule followed throughout the country, presswise and otherwise. More particularly, the players were subjected to field criticism from the stands and especially from opposing players.…”
And that’s all pretty easy to understand. If you’re a half-drunk heckler who can’t be bothered to learn the players names, it’s pretty easy to shout “you suck, number twelve” from under the shade of your boater hat.
Most reporting online and even that National Baseball Hall article suggest the numbers were abandoned after 1923. The fantastic Dressed to the Nines website shows the 1924 uniforms with no numbers.
But for Cardinal fans, there is an even better resource for uniform minutiae: St. Louis Cardinals Uniforms & Logos: An Illustrated History, written by Gary Kodner and Oliver Kodner and published by the Cardinals Hall of Fame & Museum.
According to that sacred text, the Cardinals continued to wear numbers on the sleeve into the 1924 season.
1924 is a significant year in Hornsby’s career because, as anyone who loves mnemonic devices can tell you, Hornsby “hit .424 in 1924.” And for those of us advanced stat types, Hornsby’s 12.2 WAR in 1924 represents the greatest single season for a Cardinals player in history.
But what number did Hornsby wear in 1923 and 1924?
In general, players in those early days were assigned a number that corresponded to their place in the batting order. That is how we got Babe Ruth in #3 and Lou Gehrig in #4, though the Yankees would not adopt those numbers until 1929.
Hornsby was a fixture in the #3 spot in the order in 1923 and 1924, so a good guess would be that he wore #3. This also tracks with the #4 he wore in 1933, when he typically batted in the 4th spot.
But the handful of pictures we have of Cardinals players of that era in their uniforms with the numbers suggests that they did not conform to batting order position, or if they did only loosely. Further, we know that Hornsby did not wear #3 because we have this photo of LF Ray Blades wearing that number. Blades most typically batted leadoff, and never in the #3 slot.
After searching high and low, I finally found a photo that seems to confirm 1) that the 1924 Cardinals wore numbers and 2) the number Hornsby wore. Again, it comes from the wonderful book published by the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum:
I’m 98% sure that player I’ve circled is Rogers Hornsby. These are old, blurry pictures, and these dudes looked a lot alike. But assuming I’ve correctly identified Hornsby, we can clearly see his number... #6.
So there you have it: The number that Rogers Hornsby wore for two of his peak seasons with the cardinals was Six. Therefore, no other Cardinal should be allowed to wear that number and it should be retired in his honor.