By the time Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season, he was everywhere.
The classic, white, pinstriped No. 2 Yankees jersey he made famous was the best-selling jersey in all of MLB.
One prominent baseball merchandiser told ESPN that Jeter’s shirt was
in fact the best-selling MLB jersey of all time. The love of Jeter didn’t end when he stopped playing, either, as he remained atop most lists of baseball’s most recognizable stars for years after he retired.
All of that barely scratches the surface when it comes to putting the influence
of No. 2 into context. Over the course of his unparalleled 20-year career with the Yankees, Jeter accumulated
3,465 hits, 14 All-Star appearances, five World Series titles and legions of fans of all ages. Some of those Captain
fans are now outstanding MLB players themselves.
Using data gathered from baseball-reference.com
and MLB.com, ESPN evaluated the WAR (wins above replacement) of every MLB player from 2005 (halfway through Jeter’s career) to 2021 to determine which jersey numbers were most productive.
Below ESPN tells the stories of those No. 2s and of the players who currently wear the
only other four numbers to rank in the top 10 of average and total WAR and be worn by at least 100 players from 2005 to 2021.
Watch on ESPN and ESPN+:
“THE CAPTAIN,” EPISODE 1: Monday, July 18, 10 p.m. ET. Watch the
After a few flirtations with uniform numbers, the practice of putting them on player
jerseys began in earnest with the 1929 Yankees, and they have been a part of baseball ever since. At first,
players wore numbers that corresponded with their place in the batting order, which is why Babe Ruth wore
No. 3 and Lou Gehrig No. 4. The first No. 2 was also a Yankees shortstop — Mark Koenig, a member of the
franchise’s famed 1927 club.
Koenig had nothing to do with Jeter ending up as a No. 2-wearing Yankees’ shortstop
seven decades later, but Jeter has a lot to do with the proliferation of high-level No. 2s in the game since
his arrival. A number of the game’s top infielders have cited Jeter as an influence and a reason why they
wear the number they wear. There is even a shortstop who debuted for Boston this season whose parents
honored Jeter in a more profound way. That rookie’s name is Jeter Downs, and, yes, he’s named after the Captain.
Since Jeter broke into the majors in 1995, players wearing No. 2 have collected more hits than any other uniform number, followed by No. 7. Jeter leads the way, of course — he’s sixth on the career hit list, after all — but 10 other players have at least 1,000 hits wearing No. 2 since Jeter’s call-up. Following Jeter on that list are Randy Winn, Denard Span, Aaron Hill, Troy Tulowitzki and Bogaerts.
The thing is, Jeter didn’t even want No. 2 at first. His preference was No. 13, the number his father, Charles, wore in college. The number was at the time occupied by Jim Leyritz, so Jeter was assigned No. 2. It was surprisingly available given that most of the single-digit numbers had been retired for the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. According to Ian O’Connor, author of “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter,” it was then-Yankees manager Buck Showalter’s idea to give Jeter No. 2. The next spring, after Showalter had been fired, New York’s equipment manager attempted to give Jeter No. 17. Jeter wasn’t having it.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Baseball players are infamously superstitious, but given Jeter’s original preference for sporting his father’s No. 13, he appears to be unconcerned about supernatural interference. Plenty of others have tempted fate with No. 13 and done just fine, especially in the dollar column. Jeter’s most notable No. 13-wearing teammate in New York was Alex Rodriguez, who made so much money on and off the field that he is now a co-owner of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Manny Machado, an early front-runner in this season’s NL MVP race, is another well-compensated No. 13 blazing a path to Cooperstown-worthy statistics despite carrying the unluckiest of numbers on his back.
Uniform No. 13 is still not exactly the number of choice among big leaguers, but it’s become gradually more acceptable over the decades. During the 1930s, when the wearing of numbers became embedded as part of the game’s fabric, only 0.4% of player seasons were accounted for by players wearing No. 13.
After a brief rise in the 1940s, the figure dropped back to 0.4% in the 1950s, perhaps as a consequence of Bobby Thomson’s historic pennant-winning homer in 1951 off of No. 13-wearing Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca. But the usage climbed after that, increasing each decade to the 2010s, when 1.5% of player seasons went to bearers of No. 13.
Shortstop appears to be the position of choice for those who wave a dismissive hand at superstition. The four all-time leaders in WAR among No. 13s all spent at least one full season as a big league shortstop: A-Rod, Machado, Omar Vizquel and Dave Concepcion.
Only three players have posted a season of at least 8 WAR while wearing No. 13. The first was former Red Sox shortstop John Valentin, who put up 8.3 WAR in 1995, the season of Jeter’s debut. The other two were posted by A-Rod (2005, 2007), who was named AL MVP in both seasons played next to Jeter. Rodriguez had six other seasons of at least 8 WAR before he joined the Yankees but he wore No. 3 during those campaigns for Seattle and Texas. No. 3, of course, is the domain of Ruth in the Bronx.
Through the Fourth of July, the most popular uniform number in the major leagues this season was No. 28, with 25 players featuring it so far this campaign. That was also the most popular number last season, when 32 players wore it, one more than the 31 players who wore No. 48. This year features a similarly fierce battle, with No. 50 this year’s leading contender to 28’s popularity crown. Through July 4, 24 players had worn the number this season. With some of this year’s division races already turning into runaways, maybe this is the race we’ll end up watching over the second half of the season.
The resurgence of No. 28 wearers is a return to form for the jersey. After being the most worn number during both the 1990s and 2000s (in terms of total player seasons), it fell to No. 18 during the 2010s.
No. 28 might be in vogue now, but the mantle of “most popular number” is forever changing hands. During the 1930s, it was No. 24 that raced out to the lead, though it was more a question of quantity than quality. During the 1940s, No. 17 took the lead, followed by No. 15 in the 1950s. Since then it has been No. 23 (1960s), No. 25 (1970s and 80s) before the reign of No. 28 began.
It’s decorated list features a multiple Cy Young winner (Kluber) and plenty of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winners, like Arenado, Baez, Donaldson, Martinez and Olson. Jeter didn’t win any Cy Youngs, though there are probably some Yankees fans who think he could have if given the chance. But he did win five Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers.
Jeter was one member of a wave of homegrown stars who formed the foundation of the championship Yankees teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was joined by Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, among others. Rivera and Jeter are two of only 54 one-team Hall of Famers in baseball history, having gone into the Hall in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
These days, some of the AL’s top young players are also homegrown talents, starring for the team that developed them. An unusual number of those standouts happen to wear No. 11, a figure that is likely going to be featured on some of the iconic jerseys of this era.
There is something to this notion of homegrown talent, at least in terms of winning at the highest level. Nine of the past 11 World Series champs have featured a homegrown WAR leader. For the Yankees, it has been a virtual necessity to feature a homegrown player as the cornerstone on a title team.
It didn’t start out that way, as the first four Yankees championships featured Ruth as their WAR leader. That was the aftermath of baseball’s most famous transaction — the one in which the Red Sox sold Ruth to their rivals in New York. However, the Yankees have won 23 titles since Ruth retired. All but two of those championship clubs have featured a homegrown Yankee atop its WAR leaderboard.
The exceptions were Red Ruffing (1938 WAR leader, came up with the Red Sox) and Graig Nettles (1977, played for Minnesota and Cleveland before moving to the Yankees). Each of the 21 other post-Ruth champions featured a WAR leader who made his MLB debut in a Yankees uniform. Three times it was Jeter filling that role (1998, 1999 and 2009).
All of this bodes well for this year’s Yankees, who are on a record pace for wins. Their WAR leader is AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge, who was a first-round draft pick by New York in 2013.
As Jeter neared the end of his career and ultimately retired, a new generation of stars were making their own ways to the top of the MLB pecking order. While it might not be a case of simply doubling up on Jeter’s No. 2, the double-deuce has risen in prominence perhaps more than any other since the advent of Jeter. While numbers in the single digits and teens have traditionally been the domain of hitters, pitchers have dominated uniforms bearing numbers in the 30s and 40s. No. 22 has become increasingly a mix of both. Ten of the 13 30-homer seasons from No. 22s have come since Jeter debuted, while 17 of the 18 200-strikeout seasons have come during the Captain’s era.
While some of the decorated No. 22s of recent vintage have made their marks in the postseason, none of them have built anything close to the playoff resume that Jeter compiled over 16 postseasons with the Yankees. That’s not an insult to them because Jeter’s playoff record is one of the more staggering elements of his Hall of Fame career.
Jeter played an entire extra season just in playoff games, appearing in a record 158 postseason contests, 33 more than any other player. He’s also the all-time playoff leader in hits, runs, total bases and doubles. It wasn’t just volume. Jeter compiled a .817 OPS during his regular-season career. At playoff time, against tougher competition and when the stakes were at their highest, that figure was .838.
The 22s can’t match Jeter in October yet. Soto has a title under his belt already after hitting three homers for Washington in the 2019 Fall Classic. Heyward will forever be remembered for the ring he won with the 2016 Cubs. And Kershaw? Sure, his postseason career has been full of ups and downs, but he is the all-time playoff leader in strikeouts.
For reasons that go way beyond baseball and merchandise sales, No. 42 is baseball’s most iconic number, the only retired jersey in every MLB ballpark. Jackie Robinson, the man responsible for that, is fittingly also the all-time WAR leader for players wearing that number, followed by Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Now that the last of No. 42 bearers is retired, this is one leaderboard that is never going to change. That’s as it should be.
The heyday for No. 42 in the years after Robinson retired was the 1970s, when players wearing the historic number accounted for 166 player seasons. As was the convention of the day, it was mostly a pitcher’s number during those years, but some non-pitchers wore it, like slugger Greg Luzinski and future manager Tony La Russa.
There was also a player who wore No. 42 in six games for Cleveland in 1974. That player’s name was Johnny Jeter. Sadly, there is no relation.
No. 24 has seen three greats pile up more than 100 career WAR, including Barry Bonds, fourth all time, fifth-place Willie Mays and Rickey Henderson (19th). However, while Mays spent nearly his entire career making No. 24 famous, Bonds switched to No. 25 after he signed with the Giants, and Henderson switched numbers several times during his never-ending career.
Still, No. 24 has featured an unusual frequency of All-Star-level seasons, with 104 seasons of at least 5 WAR being posted by players while wearing that number. That’s second among all numbers, surpassed only by No. 5.
One of those All-Stars was Ken Griffey Jr., whose No. 24 is retired at all levels of the Seattle Mariners organization. On the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut, April 15, 1997, and again on the same day in 2007, Griffey honored Robinson by switching his 24 to 42. The gesture forged the path for every player to wear 42 on his back every April 15th.
Produced by ESPN Creative Studio: Michelle Bashaw, Matt Becker, Dominique DeMoe, Heather Donahue, Jarret Gabel, Alecia Hamm, Sean Hintz, Luke Knox, Rylee McIver and Beth Stojkov.
Written by Bradford Doolittle.
Illustrations by Brandon Loving. Additional visuals from AP Images, Getty Images, Imagn.