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Fabric of the Game
Sarah Ballard
April 05, 1989
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April 05, 1989

Fabric Of The Game


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"That year Landreaux had a good year, a 31-game hitting streak," says Twins media relations director Tom Mee. "But he pouted all summer and refused to wear his socks low, and it caused problems." The next season Landreaux was playing in Los Angeles.

Andy Van Slyke, the Pittsburgh out-fielder, has been observing the march of fashion from dugout level for six years, and has reached the conclusion that it's the man who makes the uniform. "Tommy Lasorda," he says, "wouldn't look good in any uniform, not Dodger blue, Cardinal red or Yankee pinstripes. But Jose Canseco, you could put a so ft ball uniform on him and he'd look like a major leaguer. Then there's [Pirate pitcher] Bob Walk. He goes out there with sunflower seeds and spit on his uniform, old gum, pine tar and resin, coffee stains on his pants, burns from cigarettes, and he hasn't shaved, but somehow he looks good. Even if he's getting his butt beat, he looks good doing it."

Pitcher Ron Darling of the New York Mets sees a uniform as a philosophical statement. "The more conservative the look, the better," he says. "That's why I wear my socks so low. Me and [Yankee third baseman Mike] Pagliarulo like our socks real low. We're both from Massachusetts. We believe in the hardworking, nothing-fancy work ethic. I like to think of myself as a puritan, or maybe a Calvinist in a baseball uniform."

Tommy John is a traditionalist. "The best uniforms historically are the Yankees', Dodgers' and Cardinals'," he says. "But the greatest of all time may have been those old baggy Milwaukee Braves uniforms with the tomahawk across the front. What a wonderful uniform."

The celebrated architect Mies van der Rohe liked to say, "God is in the details." If he was right, then baseball must be on close terms with the Almighty. Although the characteristic elements of the uniform—short-legged pants and long socks—were set in 1867 and have not changed, the rest, the details, have been in a state of constant flux. The uniform has been added to, subtracted from, embellished and streamlined with such frequency and imagination that the only constant in its long history is change.

A few of the changes have survived; most have sunk under their own weight, victims of fickle fashion, public ridicule or plain absurdity. In 1876, Albert G. Spalding, a defector from the Boston Red Stockings, became pitcher-manager of the Chicago White Stockings. Being an ambitious young man, Spalding, on the side, founded a sporting goods business that supplied the Chicago team with uniforms and eventually grew into a commercial empire. That was Spalding's good idea. Another, less laudable, idea of his was to assign a cap of a different color to each field position, which someone said made the White Stockings look like "a Dutch bed of tulips."

At present, baseball is caught up in a wave of nostalgic fervor, a postmodernist period, designers might say. Teams are reaching into their pasts for a button here, a belt there, adding pinstripes, abandoning color, rehabilitating long-neglected symbols. Two years ago the Atlanta Braves revived the old Milwaukee tomahawk, which originated with the Boston Braves. And last year the Oakland Athletics added an elephant patch to their sleeves, a relic of the long-ago feud between John McGraw's New York Giants and Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. When McGraw said the Athletics were a bunch of white elephants, Mack responded to the slight by adopting the animal as the team's insignia and in 1918 ordered elephants to be embroidered on his team's shirts.

The groundwork for the elephant revival was laid by A's equipment manager-Frank Ciensczyk. "I've been sending the office stuff on the elephants for years," he says. "They finally decided to use it." The A's are also now wearing traditional whites at home and grays on the road, a major turnaround for the team that created a sensation in the '70s when it broke the uniform color barrier by boldly rotating combinations of green and yellow.

Now the Athletics' mix-and-match era is history. So, too, is San Diego's five-year flirtation with a brown-and-orange-and-yellow scheme that Padres first baseman Steve Garvey said made him feel like a taco. And the Houston Astros are no longer the human Popsicles they once were: The red, yellow and orange rainbow that covered their chests from 1975 through '86 has diminished to mere stripes on shoulders and sleeves. Who knows? If the traditionalist trend persists, the '90s could see a return to baggy flannels.

Down through the years, baseball team owners and managers have seemingly been unable to resist the impulse to use their players as living, breathing mannequins. The tendency to tinker with the attire is a compulsion almost as old as the uniform itself—and that, by most historians' reckoning, dates from 1849, when the New York Knickerbockers took the field in approximately matching outfits of blue trousers and white shirts.

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