What is the best jersey number in Atlanta sports history?
That simple question led me on a journey through time to find the answer. Icons can come packaged in every feasible way. Whether it be in a crisp clean single digit like No. 7 (Michael Vick), a classic like No. 21 (Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins) or a relatively unassuming numeral like 31 (Greg Maddux), each of these numbers means something in Atlanta sports lore.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my findings five jersey numbers at a time. I looked at each of the major sports franchises in the city’s history, from the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Dream, United, Thrashers and Flames, all in order to catalog the definitive list of jersey numbers and whose worn them.
Before we get to the list, a few rules: A player had to play multiple seasons in Atlanta to be considered. I did not include any player who played for a franchise while it was located in another city; they had to have played in Atlanta.
To determine value and talent, I used a value-related stat for each sport such as Wins Above Replacement (baseball) or Point Share (hockey). Sometimes, I will make a subjective call. You may disagree, but that’s the fun of all of this, right? So, feel free to debate in the comments and let’s have a fun walk down memory lane. Let’s go!
Jersey No. 41
Best player: Braves 3B Eddie Mathews (1952-66)
Honorable mentions: Falcons DB Eugene Robinson (1998-99)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 41: 31
Summary: This is not a star-studded group of players, but one Hall of Famer did just squeak under the wire. Eddie Mathews, one of the best third basemen to ever play the game, spent the vast majority of his career playing for the Milwaukee Braves, but he did play the 1966 season in Atlanta. I know I’m breaking the rules a little bit here since Mathews didn’t play multiple seasons in Atlanta, but he did play for the franchise for 15 seasons and is considered a Braves icon. A nine-time All-Star and multiple-time MVP candidate, Mathews twice led Major League Baseball in home runs and finished his career with 512 home runs and 1,453 RBIs.
Some Falcons fans may downright hate Eugene Robinson for his infamous arrest the night before Atlanta was set to play in the Super Bowl, but others may be more conflicted. Robinson’s stellar play in 1998 was part of the reason Atlanta reached the Super Bowl in the first place. He started every game that season and forced six turnovers in the regular season with one pick-six, and Robinson again recorded an interception in the playoffs. His ability to create turnovers helped Atlanta a lot during one of its best seasons.
Jersey No. 42
Best player: Falcons RB Gerald Riggs (1982-88)
Honorable mentions: Braves P Rick Mahler (1979-88), Falcons FB Patrick DiMarco (2013-16)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 42: 45
Summary: First off, let me apologize for including Patrick DiMarco in my last article in this series under the No. 40. That’s what I get for having bad handwriting. Of course DiMarco was No. 42, but he still takes a backseat here. This time, it’s to another Falcons great.
A first-round pick by the Falcons in 1982, Gerald Riggs wasn’t an immediate success in Atlanta. In fact, it took two seasons before he made his first start for the team. Once he did become the starter in 1984, however, Riggs took off. He had three straight seasons with over 1,300 yards rushing, including a career-high 1,719 rushing yards and 1,986 combined yards in 1986. A three-time Pro Bowler with the Falcons, Riggs ended his seven-year run in Atlanta with 8,015 combined yards and 48 touchdowns. Riggs was inducted into the Falcons Ring of Honor in 2013.
Rick Mahler was a workhorse at times for the Braves, leading the league in starts during the 1985 and 1986 seasons, but that wasn’t always a good thing. His ERA ballooned toward the end of his 11-year run with Atlanta, and Mahler finished with a flat 4.00 ERA and a 79-89 record. As I previously mentioned about DiMarco, he’s absolutely a fan favorite due to his ability to make a brutal, unglamorous position seem so fun.
Jersey No. 43
Best player: Braves P Mark Wohlers (1991-99)
Honorable mentions: Falcons RB Dave Hampton (1972-1976), Hawks PF Grant Long (1994-96, 1998-99)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 43: 53
Summary: This is a real toss-up for the top spot, but the nod goes to Mark Wohlers for his role in bringing the Atlanta Braves a world championship. Holding a 1-0 lead after a masterpiece by starter Tom Glavine in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, Bobby Cox turned to Wohlers to close it out. He did just that, retiring his three batters in order to win the title for Atlanta. Wohlers was a bit of a rising star in the Braves organization prior to that culminating moment, and he continued to have success in 1996 en route to earning his only All-Star Game nod. That success didn’t last for Wohlers, however, and he struggled against the Yankees in the Braves’ ultimate World Series loss. Still, during his nine seasons with the Braves, he accomplished a lot as a reliable reliever and important closer.
Dave Hampton’s start in the NFL wasn’t exactly what the Green Bay Packers had been hoping for when they drafted him, but things kicked into gear when he arrived in Atlanta. After gaining a total of 787 rushing yards in three seasons with Green Bay, Hampton exploded for 995 yards during the 1972 season, his first with the Falcons. Long-time fans will recall that Hampton actually reached 1,000 yards in 1972 but was tackled for a loss on the following play in the final game. He followed that up with another great year, gaining 997 yards rushing yards and a career-high 273 receiving yards. Injuries and poor team play led to a down year for Hampton in 1974, but he then became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher and was named the PFWA’s Comeback Player of the Year in 1975.
Jersey No. 44
Best player: OF Hank Aaron (1954-74)
Honorable mentions: Hawks SG Pete Maravich (1970-74), Falcons DE Vic Beasley (2015-19)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 44: 34
Summary: This begins and ends with Hammerin’ Hank. The best player in Braves history, Aaron spent an incredible 21 years with the organization and memorably became the Home Run King after surpassing Babe Ruth with home run No. 715 during the 1974 season, his last in Atlanta. Almost equally impressive was his stretch of 20-straight All-Star games as a member of the Braves organization. That’s right – only during his rookie season in 1954 did Aaron not make the All-Star game as a Brave. Aaron led all players in home runs three times during his career and in RBIs four times. He remains the all-time leader in career RBIs with 2,297 and in total bases with 6,856. This entire article could be dedicated to Aaron’s greatness, and we wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what he meant to Atlanta.
Another shoutout should be given to Pete Maravich, who you may know as Pistol Pete. Maravich started his career in Atlanta and quickly burst onto the scene scoring 23.2 points per game. He played four seasons in Atlanta, twice making the All-Star Game, and averaged 24.3 points with 5.6 assists in that time.
Jersey No. 45
Best player: Falcons LB Deion Jones (2016-present)
Honorable mentions: Falcons RB T.J. Duckett (2002-05), Braves P Charlie Puleo (1986-89)
Total number of Atlanta athletes to wear No. 45: 44
Summary: This isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing number, but Deion Jones makes it look so cool. He demonstrated a sign of things to come during his rookie season, returning two interceptions for touchdowns, and he now has five pick-sixes in five seasons. Few linebackers in the game presently showcase the type of playmaking ability and nose for the football that Jones has shown. He helped set the trend of the smaller, faster linebackers that have come to take over the NFL, and Jones continues to be as effective against the run as he is against the pass. There are some holes in his game for those who like to nitpick, but the Falcons are undoubtedly better with him at the heart of their defense.
Next up: Nos. 46-50
Who is the best player to wear a No. 41-45?
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