Tigers have rarely handed out uniform number 13

The most notable players to wear #13 for the Detroit Tigers: Elden Auker, Lance Parrish

The most notable players to wear #13 for the Detroit Tigers: pitcher Elden Auker, catcher Lance Parrish, and catcher Alex Avila.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way

— Stevie Wonder’s hit song Superstition (1972)

Why is the number thirteen considered unlucky? Apparently we have the Mayans* to thank for this silliness.

Or is it silly? Depends on whom you ask. Baseball players are notoriously superstitious, even in these supposed enlightened days of modern science. As a result, few players wear the number thirteen on the back of their uniforms, in fact some teams, like the Detroit Tigers, rarely hand it out at all.

Thirteen has such a negative standing with so many people that there’s even a scientific name for the fear of it: triskaidekaphobia. Try saying that thirteen times fast.

All you need to do is look at the list of retired uniform numbers to see how rarely the #13 has been worn among big league players (consult chart below).

A very brief history of superstition in baseball

People have long assigned importance to things that don’t seem to make sense. Rabbit’s feet, horseshoes, clovers, and so on. Since the early days of baseball, superstition has been in the game. In the early years the superstitions were carried over from other areas of life, such as a rabbit’s foot. Ballplayers would freak out if they saw a black cat on the way to or at the ballpark. It was considered unlucky to light three cigars on one match. Unfortunately for the poor souls involved, it was considered unlucky to see or come in contact with someone who was on crutches, in a wheelchair, or lame.

Lucky symbols included lady bugs, chimney sweeps, four-leaf clovers, a wish bone, and a white elephant. The Philadelphia Athletics believed so much in the power of the elephant that they used a white elephant on their uniform sleeves for decades.

Players had various odd superstitions, including one that still exists in many dugouts today. That’s to not touch the foul line when going on or off the field. Many managers and players can be seen hopping over the line. Sparky Anderson famously tip-toed his way over the white lines his entire career.

Rube Waddell was a famous hard-throwing pitcher for the A’s in the early years of the twentieth century. He was also one of the most superstitious players to ever put on a uniform. Waddell could not tolerate any paper on the field. The Tigers would exploit that phobia by releasing slips of paper onto the diamond during games in which Waddell faced them. Waddell also was known to chase black cats from the ballpark, and on at least one occasion he ran after a fire truck, which was also lucky or unlucky depending on your point of view.

The horseshoe has a checkered history as a luck symbol. In some cultures it’s good luck, in others it’s a dark cloud. In some regions of the U.S. the shoe had to be hung so the open ends pointed up (so the luck wouldn’t tun out), but other team photos from the early twentieth century show horseshoes hung on the clubhouse wall the other way behind the team.

In the early 1900s, several teams adopted mascots and “good luck charms” and they took it very seriously. The New York Giants had the most famous good luck charm, a man named Charles Faust whose presence coincided with a tremendous winning stretch for the team in 1911. That season the Giants were 36-2 when Faust was in uniform for the team. Though he as not a talented ballplayer, Giants’ manager John McGraw allowed Faust to appear in two games late in the season after they had wrapped up the pennant. Faust was so popular and so successful as a good luck charm that he earned the nickname “Victory.” Baseball historian Gabriel Schechter wrote an excellent biography of Faust that sheds more light on that very interesting (and superstitious) era.

The modern ballplayer usually won’t admit to a superstition, but they still exist. During his big league career, Wade Boggs always took batting practice and infield practice at precisely seven minutes past the hour or half hour, and he always insisted on eating chicken before every game. As a result of his fondness for feathered food, Boggs was known as “The Chicken Man.”

Managers have their quirks too. In 2012 when his team was on a winning streak, Detroit skipper Jim Leyland readily admitted that he was wearing the same underwear until the team lost. Players and managers will often perform the same ritual or routine when it proves successful. In the 1970s when he managed the Cincinnati Reds, Anderson once sat in the same spot with his leg lifted slightly during an eight-run rally by his offense. He told coach George Scherger “I will hold my leg in this position forever if we keep scoring!”

I confess that when I was a young baseball player I once had a good game in which I happened to have a few dollars in the back pocket of my uniform pants. You better believe I kept a $1 or $5 bill in my pocket from that point on, though it obviously didn’t lead to my success as a professional baseball player. (Maybe I should have tried a $100 bill).

History of uniform number 13 with the Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Tigers first wore uniform numbers in 1931, a few years after they were first permanently introduced to the game by the New York Yankees. In those days the numbers were essentially assigned to players based on their standing with the team and place in the batting lineup. As a result, leadoff hitter Hub Walker was assigned #1, second place hitter Gee Walker was given #2, Charlie Gehringer received #3, and so on. After the first nine or ten numbers, they were assigned to pitchers and down the roster. Notably however, the team did not assign the number thirteen to anyone in 1931. Every other number between #1 and #19 was assigned, but not tricky #13.

The first time the Tigers sewed the #13 on the back of their uniform was for the 1934 season. Something happened that season that may have changed the policy: Mickey Cochrane arrived from the A’s and replaced Bucky Harris as manager. Harris was a superstitious fella, and it’s likely that he was behind the unofficial team ban on using #13.

The Tigers won the pennant in 1934, the first season they had a player wearing #13. Maybe they should have done it sooner. But as we’ll see in the following chronology of the #13 and the Tigers, “beginner’s luck” with that number didn’t lead to it being used freely. In fact, there were decades where the franchise didn’t dare touch the number.

Still, since the team started wearing uniform numbers they’ve won eight pennants and in six of those seasons they had a player wearing #13.

Elden Auker (1934-36)

Auker was unusual for many reasons, so perhaps it’s fitting he was the first Detroit ballplayer to don the number thirteen, in 1934. A pitcher, Auker threw the ball underhanded, firing it to the plate in a sweeping “submarine” motion that was very difficult for enemy batters to pick up. During the Depression years he was truly one of a kind in the league, which led to success. he won 15 games for the Bengals in ’34 and 18 more in 1935 when the team finally won their first World Series title. He was also a college-educated man (University of Kansas), which was rare in baseball in those days. Auker was a very well-liked and articulate man, and he also survived longer than any other member of the Tigers’ first world champions: he lived until the age 95, finally passing in 2006.

Auker wore #13 for three seasons, from 1934 to 1936, but even he may have fallen under the dark spell of the number, because in 1937 he switched to #12. There’s no record as to why he switched, but the previous year he had won 13 games and the team had failed to repeat as champions. Maybe he wanted a “change of luck?”

Bob Miller (1956)

Twenty years passed before the Detroit Tigers put #13 on the back of their uniform again. Yes, twenty years. It can only be surmised that the club really wanted to avoid any semblance of bad luck. During that time the team won two pennants and one World Series, but by the early 1950s they were mired in a bad stretch. Maybe that’s why the equipment man decided to give #13 to young Bob Miller, a young pitching star who hadn’t lived up to his potential.

Miller was what they called a “bonus baby” in those days, a young player who was signed for a huge bonus in hopes of him developing in to a star. The condition for signing an amateur player to a large amount of money at that time was that the team had to keep the player on the roster for a full season. So, the 17-year old Miller spent all of 1953 with the Bengals, whether he was ready to face big league hitting or not. He wasn’t. Miller had little success in his first three seasons with Detroit, so in 1956 apparently a switch from #28 to #13 was a measure to spark something new. It didn’t help, and it was Miller’s last year in a Detroit uniform.

Bill Tuttle (1956-57)

This was probably a case of “as long as we have the uniform stitched together we might as well use it” type of thing. Tuttle was a Detroit’s starting center fielder and a good defensive player. He wore #13 for parts of two seasons with Detroit before moving on. He didn’t mind the “unlucky” number because he wore it with two more teams, the A’s and Twins, in his career.

Bill Faul (1962-64)

If ever anyone was made to wear #13, it was Bill Faul, an otherwise forgettable major league pitcher, but a guy who had some real affection for the superstitious. Faul won a grand total of five games for the Tigers in his three years with the team, but it was what he did in the clubhouse that drew him fame. While watching a game from the bullpen in the minor leagues Faul’s teammates dared him to eat a live frog after hearing him brag about his iron stomach. Faul reportedly responded “Wash it first.” After they gave the poor amphibian a bath, Faul gulped it down, spitting out a few bones. Later, after his tenure in Detroit while pitching for Jack McKeon in another minor league stop, Faul allegedly had to be restrained by teammates when he pulled out a revolver and threatened to shoot his manager for not pitching him enough. When he was tossing baseballs for the Cubs, Faul once had himself hypnotized in the clubhouse to get himself out of a slump.

Lance Parrish (1977-1986)

After more than a decade of shunning #13, the Tigers pulled it out of the mothballs and gave it to a young catcher named Lance Parrish, the supposed heir apparent to Bill Freehan behind the plate. Parrish didn’t seem to mind the number at all and it certainly didn’t stop him from performing on the field. The man they called “Big Wheel” was a six-time All-Star for the Tigers and the cleanup man on the 1984 World Champions.

Parrish’s exit from the Motor City was somewhat abrupt, as the team let him leave via free agency after the 1986 season, and he didn’t play with the team long enough or at a level high enough to have his #13 retired, but he was clearly the best player of the eleven Tigers who have worn the number. Later, when he returned as a coach under Alan Trammell, Parrish wore #13 again. He wore #13 at almost every stop in his big league career (19 years in all as a player) and still wears it in his position as manager of the Erie SeaWolves, the Tigers Double-A affiliate.

Rico Brogna (1992)

Normally after a notable player wears a number and moves on or retires, a franchise will wait a while before giving out that uniform number again. In the post-Parrish years it took six seasons before clubhouse man Jim Schmuckal handed out #13 to someone new. The choice was Brogna, a power-hitting first baseman who was Detroit’s first selection in the 1988 amateur draft. The problem with Brogna was timing: while the 22-year old was ready for the majors in 1992, the Tigers had Cecil Fielder at first. In addition, Sparky Anderson was notoriously leary of using young ballplayers, and Brogna was never a favorite of the white-haired manager for some reason. He got into nine games that summer, hit one home run, and that was it. A few years later the Tigers traded Brogna to the Mets for someone named Alan Zinter. Freed from the bondage of the Tiger system, Brogna hit 22 homers for the Mets and a few years later did the same for the Phillies in three consecutive seasons while also driving in 100 or more runs twice. He was a good hitter who got away from the Tigers. He never wore #13 after that short spell with Detroit.

Mark Leiter (1993)

Leiter was wearing #23 for the Tigers when the team re-acquired Kirk Gibson before the ’93 season. Gibby wanted his old number back, so Leiter let him have it and took #13 for himself. He pitched that season for the Tigers but inexplicably in the offseason the club released the 30-year old outright. He hadn’t shown much in the big leagues to that point, but he had pretty good stuff. The Angels picked him up and Leiter ended up pitching eight more seasons in the major leagues. That was sort of how it went in the 1990s with the Tigers and their front office.

Todd Steverson (1995)

Steverson was the cousin of Ron LeFlore, and if that weren’t bad luck enough, the Tigers slapped #13 on his back when he arrived in 1995. That was the season when major league teams locked players out of spring training and were threatening to use “replacement players.” Which prompted Sparky Anderson to tell the front office he would not “under any circumstances” manage replacement players while a baseball strike was on. As a result, owner Mike Ilitch forced Sparky out after that season, and most likely, MLB informally blacklisted the manager.

Steverson was entirely forgettable as a spare outfielder for Sparky in his final season as a big league manager. He hit home runs in back-to-back games against the Twins in June, and those were the only homers he ever hit in the majors.

Vance Wilson (2006)

After a full decade without an appearance, the number thirteen was back for the Tigers in 2006. (Parrish had worn the number as a coach in 1999-2001 and again from 2003-2005, and when he left as part of Trammell’s staff, #13 was free for Wilson).

Wilson was a veteran catcher who served as caddy to Ivan Rodriguez in 2005 and 2006. Which is to say he didn’t play much. He did hit five home runs in limited duty that season, with four of the homers coming in Detroit wins.

Josh Anderson (2009)

A corner outfielder, Anderson was acquired on the eve of the 2009 season in a deal with the Braves because the Tigers were desperate for a player with some major league experience. He was Jim Leyland’s starting left fielder on opening day, but it soon became obvious that Anderson was not an everyday player. While the Tigers battled for the division title, just before the trade deadline Anderson was sent adrift to the Royals. He played the rest of the season for Kansas City but that was it for him in the majors. With Tuttle and Steverson, Anderson is one of the three outfielders to wear #13 for Detroit.

Alex Avila (2009-2015)

After Anderson’s exit in 2009, Avila was given 313 when he was called up to Detroit in August for the stretch drive. Avila and Parrish are the only players to wear #13 for Detroit who were All-Stars, and both were catchers. Only Parrish (ten years) wore #13 longer than Avila, who wore it for all seven years he was in the Motor City. Avila caught for four Detroit teams that went to the postseason, he’s the only Tiger catcher to do that. It’s probably safe to say that #13 will be a catcher’s number going forward for Detroit, though that could change.

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* The end of the Mayan calendar’s 13th Baktun was superstitiously feared as a harbinger of the apocalyptic 2012 phenomenon. Or it may have been due to there being 13 people who sat around the table for the Last Supper with Jesus Christ (one of them the traitor Judas Iscariot)

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Uniform # Retired Notables
1 7 Ozzie Smith, Bobby Doerr
2 4 Charlie Gehringer, Tommy Lasorda
3 6 Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew, Dale Murphy
4 8 Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Paul Molitor
5 7 Johnny Bench, Joe DiMaggio, George Brett
6 7 Stan Musial, Al Kaline, Steve Garvey
7 2 Mickey Mantle, Craig Biggio
8 6 Cal Ripken Jr., Yogi Berra, Carl Yastrzemski
9 6 Ted Williams, Roger Maris
10 7 Ron Santo, Chipper Jones, Phil Rizzuto
11 6 Barry Larkin, Carl Hubbell, Sparky Anderson
12 2 Wade Boggs, Roberto Alomar
13 1 Dave Concepcion
14 9 Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, LarryDoby
15 1 Thurman Munson
16 3 Hal Newhouser, Whitey Ford, Ted Lyons
17 2 Dizzy Dean, Todd Helton
18 2 Mel Harder, Ted Kluszewski
19 5 Bob Feller, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount
20 10 Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Lou Brock
21 3 Warren Spahn, Roberto Clemente
22 1 Jim Palmer
23 3 Ryne Sandberg, Don Mattingly, Willie Horton
24 7 Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson
25 1 Jose Cruz
26 3 Wade Boggs, Billy Williams
27 3 Carlton Fisk, Juan Marichal, Catfish Hunter
28 1 Bert Blyleven
29 3 Rod Carew, John Smoltz
30 2 Nolan Ryan, Orlando Cepeda
31 5 Greg Maddux, Dave Winfield, Mike Piazza
32 4 Sandy Koufax, Steve Koufax
33 3 Eddie Murray, Honus Wagner
34 5 Nolan Ryan, Rollie Fingers, Kirby Puckett
35 3 Phil Niekro, Frank Thomas
36 2 Robin Roberts, Gaylord Perry
37 2 Casey Stengel
39 1 Roy Campanella
40 2 Danny Murtaugh, Don Wilson
41 2 Tom Seaver, Eddie Mathews
42 2 Jackie Robinson, Mariano Rivera
43 1 Dennis Eckersley
44 4 Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey
45 2 Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez
46 1 Andy Pettitte
47 1 Tom Glavine
49 2 Ron Guidry, Larry Dierker
50 1 Jimmie Reese
51 3 Randy Johnson
53 1 Don Drysdale
66 1 Don Zimmer
72 1 Carlton Fisk