From Oscar Robertson’s No. 1 to Wayne Gretzky’s iconic No. 99, uniform numbers are as much a defining trait for a player as is his cross-over dribble, slap shot or blazing fastball.
Major League Baseball is rife with numbers tradition. Think Babe Ruth’s No. 3, Mickey Mantle’s No. 7 or Willie Mays’ No. 24. But one number is more synonymous with power than all of them:
The No. 44.
No. 44’s have been all-time home run kings (Hank Aaron). They’ve been World Series legends (Reggie Jackson). They’ve even had entire bodies of water named after them (McCovey Cove).
It’s a number that used to make pitchers tremble in their stirrups. It’s an integer once owned by burly, mustachioed, lumberjacks of men such Ken Phelps^, Gorman Thomas and Jeff Burroughs (631 career home runs combined) — not pitchers with names such as Ron Darling or John Lamb (combined 239 career home runs allowed).
Above the double four’s on the back of a jersey should be panic-inspiring names such as Butch Huskey, Brian Hunter and Bombo Rivera, even if they only hit a combined 121 career home runs wearing the integer. It’s the fear that counts.
The atomic number 44 is Ruthenium, for George Herman’s sake!
But it seems as if No. 44 as a slugger’s number is that of a woebegone power era — one that eschewed steroids for beer guts.
There are 25 men wearing No. 44 in the Major Leagues this spring. Of them, 18 are pitchers, four are non-roster invitees and three are coaches. Five teams (Braves, Brewers, Giants, Orioles and Yankees) have retired the number.