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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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The greatest of the tinkerers was McGraw. In 1901, when he became player-manager of the Orioles, gray was already the conventional color for road uniforms. McGraw, a fiery third baseman who sharpened his spikes with a file and instructed his teammates to do likewise, was also an innovator of style whose excursions into color make Charlie Finley's look reactionary. In 1901, McGraw ordered up a road uniform for the Orioles in the colors of the team bird—black cap, shirt and pants, a yellow belt, and yellow-orange stockings with black stripes. But the laughter from one end of the new American League to the other proved too much even for McGraw. After one season he struck his colors and the team went back to gray.

In 1902, McGraw jumped to the National League, and as manager of the Giants startled the fans by dressing his 1905 and 1911 teams in black for the World Series. But that was before McGraw hit on violet. At first he used it only as trim, but in 1916 the Giants wore flannels woven with thin purple lines that gave a violet effect. The "NY" emblem on the left breast was violet and so was the trim on the team's pillbox hat.

But the age of innovation that was ushered in by McGraw finally bottomed out on Aug. 8, 1976, when Bill Veeck's White Sox made their debut in the "hot-weather version" of a uniform designed by Veeck's wife: navy-blue Bermuda-length shorts and striped knee socks topped with a white nylon pullover with a floppy navy half-collar. That idea survived only through two other games, but as a publicity grabber it was a Veeck-style triumph.

Not all baseball owners have shared in the passion for innovative style; some, in fact, have fought uniform change as if it were a communist plot. From 1970 through 1984, Cincinnati players chafed, literally, under management's insistence that they wear old-fashioned heavy wool stirrup socks cut low around their ankles. The players called them ankle chokers. "I hated those old socks," says outfielder Eric Davis. "So did everybody else. I used to stretch those babies until every thread popped." Catcher Johnny Bench claims he finally found something the ankle chokers were good for: "Duck hunting. You could go out any morning, no matter how cold, and stay warm as toast."

The Reds also insisted on traditional black shoes long past the time when shoe companies began paying players handsomely to wear their brands in more stylish tints. "I'm a colorful man; I don't even wear black shoes when I get dressed up," says Davis, who now makes six figures for wearing red shoes manufactured by Nike. Says Reds manager Pete Rose, "Bob Howsam [former Reds president] used to say he was against white shoes because it would distract the fans' attention from the ball. How could he think that?"

The Reds were not entirely inflexible. In the mid-'70s, the Reds were approached by John Nash Ott, a retired banker who is founder and director of the Environmental Health and Light Research Institute in Sarasota, Fla., an organization that studies the effects of light on human physiology. Ott persuaded the Reds' management it could improve both hitting and fielding by changing the undersides of the bills of the players' caps from green to gray. Gray, Ott said, was soothing to the pituitary gland and the central nervous system. Whether their pituitaries were soothed or not, the confused Reds went back to green, only to return to gray last season.

The quandaries of color have, at times, become nearly exponential. Take, for example, the multihued anarchy that reigned in Pittsburgh from 1977 through 1979, when the Pirates had three uniforms—yellow, black, and white with pinstripes—and, with two caps, 18 possible combinations to choose from on any given day. "If it was cold, we'd wear all black," says John Hallahan, the Pirates' equipment manager. "And if it was hot, we'd wear the whites. In the 1979 Series we mostly wore the yellow tops with black pants. The players always voted. One time they wanted each guy to wear a different combination, but we didn't want to make a mockery of it, which of course it already was."

As any good equipment manager knows, the single most distinguishing element of the baseball uniform through history has been the stirrup sock. Yet when the Giants' Willie Mays had his pants tapered in 1960, he launched a trend to ever longer, tighter pants that has lasted almost three decades and that has carried baseball's traditional sock, long an anachronism, to the brink of extinction.

The baseball stirrup, like the human coccyx, is a product of devolution. Just as the coccyx was once a tail, the stirrup was once a full-fledged sock. It protected the foot from blisters and the leg from abrasion, and in some cases it provided a team its nickname: Red Stockings, White Stockings, Browns, Grays, et al. The Detroit team, for instance, was called the Wolverines until 1895; in 1896 the players donned dark socks with horizontal yellow stripes, after which they became known as the Tigers.

For a while the foot of the baseball stocking was white and the rest, the upper portion, was colored, but some time around 1905 the foot disappeared altogether, leaving only a stirrup that passed under the instep. Beneath the stirrup, players wore thin white sanitary stockings. The change may have come about out of fear that the dyes in the stockings were contributing to infection in spike wounds; before antibiotics, blood poisoning was an ever-present threat to limb and life.

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