A Brief Look Behind the MLB Uniform
A Brief Look Behind the MLB Uniform
- Words Grant Tillery
- Date March 29, 2018
Opening day is right around the corner, and plenty of baseball fans will filter into stadiums across the country to root for their home team. These same spectators will inevitably snatch up jerseys in the team pro shops—if they’re not wearing them already. While these fans will almost certainly never grace the batter’s box themselves, they continue to don jerseys as both a symbol of support and a style statement to boot. These uniforms, vintage and current, are a time-honored tradition tracing back decades in both the ballpark and on the street.
What these fans might not consider, however, is why they’re wearing their jerseys, or how the current MLB uniform rose to prominence. Much like their fans, teams began wearing matching garments as a sign of unity—using synchronized colors and logos as a signifier to teammates and fans. While the present day uniform has evolved to accommodate modern technology and aesthetic tastes, it was far from a sudden shift. The story spans generations, charting how the league finally arrived at the intersection of form and function.
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The concept of team uniforms began before the MLB’s formation. In 1849, Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Base Ball Club imposed a dress code of blue trousers and flannel shirts—the latter widely adopted by various teams. These initial “base ball” trousers were pantaloon style that quickly proved too cumbersome, causing players to stumble while running. Teams shifted to the more sport-suited knickers in the mid-1860s, and have mostly stuck with them ever since.
In 1869, the first MLB team — the Cincinnati Red Stockings —made their debut. Easily identified by the color of its socks, the team was able to corral a large following, and set the precedent moving forward. As more teams joined the league during the late 1800s, this demarcation became standard protocol. While at the time each player wore a different color position-dependent uniform, the entire team had a designated sock color that remained constant. While the intent was to avoid confusion, the plethora of uniforms were simply too confusing, and despite the matching socks was abandoned.
Early jerseys featured a half-placket henley style, with three to four buttons instead of a full spread. Unlike modern henleys, their collars were prominent and beefy, sticking up to protect players’ necks from the elements. Collarless jerseys didn’t debut until 1906, when the New York Giants adopted them. By 1914, they were ubiquitous.
The patterns and colors of early 20th century jerseys were relatively drab compared to today’s standard. Few teams sported pinstripes until the early 1900s, and the New York Yankees—known for popularizing the style —didn’t debut theirs until 1912, in order to make Babe Ruth appear slimmer. Other teams experimented with plaids during this era, with the Brooklyn Robins and New York Dodgers adopting the look in 1916 (the former opted for a large tattersall, the latter sported blanket plaid). Though bold and daring, these uniforms were retired after 1917 (save an appearance in 1928 as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ road uniform).
The Classic Look
During the 1920s and ’30s, MLB uniforms developed an iconic look that lasted for several decades. By this time, teams had two sets of uniforms—home and away—a tradition that lasts to this day. Originally home uniforms were white and road uniforms were gray, the idea being that the darker color would better hide the dirt and stains accumulated while traveling (and away from accessible laundry).
After 1929, teams ditched henleys for button-down shirts. That same year, the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees became the first teams to introduce numbered jerseys. By 1932, numbers emblazoned on players backs was a league standard, though names did not make an appearance until the Chicago White Sox unveiled them in 1960. This feature was soon adopted by all other teams, except for the New York Yankees, whose jerseys’ still remain nameless.
Amongst the many prominent changes was the introduction of the batting helmet. Through 1940, players routinely wore caps in the batter box. These caps offered minimal protection when a player was beaned by a pitch, and a career-ending injury for Detroit Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane in 1937 proved enough was enough, prompting the league to at least consider a safer alternative. Four National League teams adopted the helmet in 1941, but other clubs (including Cochrane’s Tigers) were slower to adapt, and helmets weren’t mandatory until 1971—one of many uniform changes around the time.
One 1930s flourish that never caught on was the zippered uniform. Unveiled by the 1937 Chicago Cubs, other MLB teams adopted the style through the latter half of the decade. Introduced to help players get dressed quickly, the functional alternative was deemed less attractive than its button-front counterpart and was eventually abandoned. The last team to wear zippered uniforms was the 1986 Philadelphia Phillies.
The Stylin’ ’70s
Though mandatory batting helmets took away the panache of the panel hat, the decade is considered a surprising high point for uniform style. With the rise of synthetic fabrics during the ‘70s, teams were suddenly able to create more vibrant uniforms. Gone were the days of plain white and grays, eschewed for bright blues (Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Montreal Expos) and rainbow hues (Houston Astros).
As technology progressed and uniforms became more colorful, they additionally became more functional. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the first team to trade in their button-front uniforms for pullover jerseys, following their 1970 mid-season move to Three Rivers Stadium. While the pullover wasn’t an official league requirement, due to its practicality all but four teams adopted the style by 1978.
Alongside pullover jerseys emerged beltless pants. First a part of the Pirates’ uniform, teams adopted the beltless pant much like its pullover counterpart, simply because they were easier to wear. The lightweight cotton-nylon blend added enough stretch to the pant that players could wear them tight, doing away with clunky belts without sacrificing stability.
MLB teams also experimented with shorts during the 1970s. Designed to improve speed and mobility during summer months, the shorts’ sporty look did not compensate for their lack of protection. While several minor league clubs tried the look in 1950, the 1976 Chicago White Sox were the first team to sport shorts outside of batting practice . Worn during the first game of a doubleheader, they were never seen again thereafter.
The 1990s, Japanese Culture and the Beginning of Branding
The MLB uniform underwent few changes between the 1970s and the 1990s. During the mid ‘90s, however, Japan’s influence began seeping into American on-field style. While baseball first appeared in Japan in 1867, the emergence of the Nippon League in 1949 increased the sport’s popularity. The first MLB player from Japan—Masanori Murakami of the San Francisco Giants—made his debut in 1964, but it wasn’t until Hideo Nomo won Rookie of the Year in 1995 that Japanese ball players brought their talents—and style—to the United States en masse. Though Nomo favored trim knickers without stirrups, most Japanese-inspired getups ditched the knickers in favor of looser athletic pants, which soon found their way to American ballparks. The style—also worn by players in the Dominican Republic—became ubiquitous in MLB ballparks by the late 1990s.
After two decades of sleeved jerseys, the 1993 Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds were the first to go sleeveless. Other teams followed suit throughout the 1990s in light of a new MLB regulation allowing for additional color in alternate jerseys. These vests were often worn over short-sleeve athletic shirts, providing visual contrast that made the uniforms pop. Many teams have since switched to faux-vested jerseys to replicate the look while maintaining a seamless appearance.
It was during the 1990s when baseball jerseys crossed over from field to street, and embedded themselves as part of the everyday American wardrobe. For years, fans would wear formal clothing to games, and photos from the 1940s and 1950s show row after row of spectators in solid suits and starched white shirts. Photos from the ‘90s tell a different story, with nary a suit in sight and plenty of jerseys in plain view. During this time, MLB ramped up their marketing efforts, making jerseys and caps available to the masses for the first time. With this renewed marketing efforts, fans for the first time had easy access to their preferred teams memorabilia. At the same time, creatives and artists began sporting their local teams paraphernalia is both a sign of fandom as well as a regional signifier. New York rappers started to rock Yankees hats and jerseys on the regular—Jay Z famously rapped “I made the Yankee Hat more famous than the Yankee team” on “Empire State of Mind.” Similarly, Will Smith’s Philadelphia Phillies jersey was in constant rotation on “The Fresh Prince.” Whether they worshipped the team or the artists wearing them, consumers bought jerseys and hats en masse.
The modern MLB uniform has more in common with the early league “classic look” and exuberant ‘70s uniforms than those of the ‘90s. For one, knickers have returned. The wide-legged pants ballplayers favored in the ‘90s and early aughts fell out of favor because—similar to baseball’s early days—players prefer running in form-fitting pants. Additionally, many teams have repurposed old logos for a vintage look (like the Minnesota Twins’ classic logo on their road uniform), and teams regularly release one-off uniforms for special games or events. Thanks to fans sudden interest in novelty and the leagues’ more relaxed stance towards uniforms since the ‘90s, the days of two consistent uniforms are over.
The glossy helmets of old are on their way out, as more teams adopt matte helmets which provide a cleaner, crisper look than the traditional helmet, with reduced glare to boot. With the advent of 3D printing, some teams—the St. Louis Cardinals were the latest in 2017—have added 3D logos to their helmet, which stand out more than the classic 2D versions against the plastic head protector. As technology continues to advance, more teams will undoubtedly embrace the futuristic logos.
MLB uniform production will change again next year, with Under Armour taking over the league contract from Majestic Athletic, who held the rights since 2005. Under Armour already has a strong relationship with the MLB holding several contracts from manufacturing base layers to cleats. The newfound partnership will not only simplify the complex business structure, but will showcase the extent of UA’s technology and their ability to make the storied uniform their own. Having survived for well over a century, we doubt too much change is coming.