Book Review: Got Your Number by Mike Greenberg

Mike Greenberg has co-written another book.  Most of us know Greenberg as long time SportsCenter anchor and avid (and as you’ll soon find out, opinionated) sports fan.  He has recently branched out and written his fifth book, this one called “Got Your Number.”  As you’d expect, it’s about sports.

As one of the many recognizable faces of ESPN, Mike Greenberg now takes histakes from our television sets and onto our bookshelves.  As ESPN has morphed from all-sports network to one that embraces debate, “Got Your Number” is Greenberg’s attempt to bring those debates to your nightstand.  Greenberg’s objective with “Number” is to list every number between 1 and 100 and assign one (or sometimes more) legendary athletes to that number.  When we think of a particular number, who is the first athlete we think of?  Mike Greenberg proposes to have that answer, or at least his answer.

In “Number’s” opening pages, he alerts you that you might disagree with him.  He welcomes that disagreement.  Greenberg’s sole purpose here is to honor sports’ greatest athletes through the numbers that we remember them by, providing a “simple, vague, nebulous, indistinct, purely subjective concept of which person in sports deserves ownership of every number, 1 through 100.”

So, if this book is simple, vague, nebulous and indistinct, why should you go about reading it?  That, my friends, is entirely up to you.  I did, and while it wasn’t the most enlightening, thought-provoking, or even debate-enticing book about sports I’ve ever read, it certainly was not the worst.  In fact, for either curiosity’s sake or perhaps even entertainment value, I ran through it in about three days.  It shouldn’t take you any longer than that.

Greenberg begins, as you’d expect with unform numbers for they “are the most lasting and profound.”  Without doling out too many spoilers, #2 belongs to Derek Jeter, # 3 obviously to Babe Ruth, 4 to Orr, 5 to DiMaggio, 6 to Russell and so on.  Each mini chapter commemorates that athlete then explains why that number is so assigned, as if we didn’t already know there was no greater athlete to ever wear the number 3 on the back of his jersey than Babe Ruth, or 6 than Bill Russell.

The rather short chapters are filled with statistics, some you probably already know and some you might not, reminding you why these athletes were one of a kind.

“Bill Russell played twenty-one winner-take-all games in his career (including all NBA best-of-five and best-of-seven, all NCAA tournament games, and all Olympic medal rounds) – and he won every one of them.  Ten of those were NBA game sevens and in those he played 488 of a possible 495 minutes and averaged 29.3 rebounds.”  That kind of nostalgia makes reading “Got Your Number” worthwhile.  Greenberg appropriately gives thanks to his co-writer and content producer, Paul Hembekides, who likely did most of the heavy lifting for this book.

There are a few jersey numbers doled out that make you scratch your head, like awarding the number 7 to John Elway over Mickey Mantle.  Perhaps with Jeter, Ruth and DiMaggio in the opening pages, Greenberg felt he had already included too many Yankees.  I do believe Ronaldo wore number 7 as well.  (Note: you’ll find only one soccer player in this book).  He also chose Gordie Howe over Ted Williams for 9.  Don’t like it?  Debate away.  This is Greenberg’s point all along.    

You might be asking what happens in sports where players don’t wear uniforms with numbers on their backs?  This is where Greenberg switches gears.  The number 18, for example, goes not to Peyton Manning but rather Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 major championships, Greenberg posits, will never be broken.  Greenberg explains that Jack’s “record 19 second place finishes at majors are nearly as revered as his 18 wins.  In a stretch of 39 consecutive majors, from the 1969 Masters through the 1978 Open Championship, he didn’t miss a single cut.  In all, he finished in the top ten at 73 major championships.”  Manning was good.  He might not have been Nicklaus good.  Spoiler alert: he finds room for Manning later in the book.

The most fun I had while reading “Got Your Number” was not in being reminded how dominant #20 Barry Sanders was, how impactful #21 Roberto Clemente was or how socially game-changing the guy they gave #23 (who also boasts another number and no, it’s not 45).  The snippets within the chapters were entertaining if not an entirely unnecessary reminder of their greatness.  No, the most fun I had was guessing who he’d choose with each number.  Some were obviously easy.  Others he took a stretch on, to make sure key historical figures were represented in ways they otherwise might not.  #25 went to Joe Louis for the number of times he defended his heavyweight title, #26 went to Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathon runner of all-time, #28 to Michael Phelps to the number of gold medals that hang around his neck.

Speaking of Peyton Manning, as numbers get more obscure, Greenberg invents more loopholes.  Nolan Ryan did not wear the number 53 but holds 53 major league records and 55 (not 18) is given to Peyton Manning in honor of the number of touchdowns he passed for in 2013.  Argue all you want (again, that’s the point), Greenberg finds a way to include his favorite athletes and those he feels deserve honorable mention.

The stretches ultimately grow on you as he tries his best to include every sports great.  The number 60 is awarded to what he calls “the greatest rivalry in the history of American sports,” Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who met “in the final round of sixty tournaments.  They each finished their career with eighteen Grand Slam singles victories.  It is impossible not to assume that either of them would have easily shattered the record of twenty-four had it not been for the other.”

He gives #67 to Vin Scully for how many years he sat behind the microphone and #68 to Bob Gibson for the year (1968) he finished the season with a record-setting 1.12 ERA.

The book gets repetitive at times and perhaps uses one too many, unnecessary adjectives, like describing how Eric Dickerson “veritably burst” into the NFL or calling George Plimpton an “iconic chronicler” but what book doesn’t have a word too many?  If anything, the boyish enthusiasm exemplifies Greenberg’s continued passion for the legends of sport after all these years. 

The book can also be a bit preachy at times, like his chapter on Dennis Rodman or when he discusses the home run chase between Sosa and McGwire, their “magical season turned out to be an illusion, unworthy of being celebrated though steadfastly impossible to forget.”  But again, opinionated is what he promised and is what he provided.  It is, as he states, “presented with no expectation of agreement.” 

“Got Your Number” is a quick, easy read that might make a good gift for the obsessed sports nut in your life, but odds are the obsessed sports nut in your life probably already knows most of what’s in the book.  It’s a good thing that obsessed sports nuts don’t mind reading these things repeatedly.

At first, I felt I was too hard on the simplicity of “Numbers” but then I tried to remind myself of the last book I ran through in three days just to see what it would say next and didn’t come up with many.   “Got Your Number” is by no means a revolutionary book about sports but rather Mike Greenberg’s thank you to the legends he idolized as well as an often-entertaining reminder of why you probably feel the same way. 

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One Reply to “Book Review: Got Your Number by Mike Greenberg”

  1. I like the premise and am especially interested in the obscure number relationship to the athletes. My problem is that too many numbers makes my head hurt. CHEERS !

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