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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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Today the stirrup is useless even for purposes of identification, since all that is usually visible is a stripe of color rising out of the player's shoes and disappearing into his pants. Some managements view this style as subversive. They make rules about how many inches of colored sock must show beneath the bottom of the pant leg, and attempt to discipline the nonconformists. Most teams, however, have thrown in the towel. General manager Lou Gorman of the Red Sox says, "The players are supposed to show three inches of sock, but they never do, and we're not strict about it, even though it's a very pretty sock if anybody could see it."

However, in baseball, as in other high fashion, everything eventually comes back into style. Lately a few of the game's more adventurous souls have begun baring their colorful calves again. Pitcher Bob Ojeda of the Mets wears his pants so short they just cover his knees, a reminder of his early playing days. "When I first played Little League, my uniform pants were actually football pants," he says. "All the other kids were wearing blue jeans, but I had a uniform. Okay, it was a football uniform, but so what? I liked it."

Catcher Scott Bradley of the Mariners also shows a lot of sock. "As a kid I always had low stirrups," he says. "To me that was the way a baseball uniform was supposed to be worn. I can remember the first time I put on a uniform, my dad sat me down and said, 'This is the way to do it.' You'd put your sanitaries on, pull your stirrups over them, and then roll your pant leg under so you had that real neat fold there."

Meanwhile, a few teams, such as the A's, have replaced stirrup and sanitary sock with a single knee-length sock that has vertical stripes of color knitted into its sides. If logic applied—which, of course, it does not—the next step would be to eliminate the stripe altogether, at which point the baseball stocking would have come full circle.

History tells us that the saga of the stirrup begins with George B. El-lard, who owned a sporting goods store in Cincinnati and was a founder of the city's baseball club. The Civil War had just ended and baseball mania was sweeping the country, spawning hundreds of new teams in cities, towns and hamlets across the land. In 1867, Ellard proposed uniforms of white caps, white shirts, short pants and long red stockings, and he hired Mrs. Bertha Bertram, a Cincinnati seamstress, to make them. "As the long red stockings were necessarily made to order, they were quite expensive," wrote Ellard's son Henry. "For they were up to that time unknown." The uniforms were a local sensation, and a Cincinnati newspaper reporter began referring to the team as the Red Stockings.

The Red Stockings were as splendid athletically as they were sartorially, and in September of 1869, having beaten the best the East had to offer, the club went west seeking new competition. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed the visitors as "the invincible nine" and remarked that the long red stockings "show their calves in all their magnitude and rotundity." At a banquet later, a San Francisco host raised a farewell toast: "To the Red Stockings—may they never meet the wash in which they are bleached."

As sensational as they were, the Red Stockings were not a financial success, and in 1871 the directors voted to return to amateur ball. But the Red Stockings' Harry Wright, by now the most celebrated player-manager in the game, announced that he and several of the best players were moving to Boston and taking their red stockings with them. By then all teams, great and small, wore short pants and long stockings.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, in Cooperstown, N.Y., attends to the legacy of the Red Stockings. The Hall has a collection of some 300 uniforms, old and new. Just over half of the collection is on display at any one time; the rest of the uniforms are packed individually in 21- by 36-inch conservation boxes stacked on metal racks in the museum's main storage room.

Until five years ago preservation of the uniforms was a matter of sending them to a commercial dry cleaner for cleaning and mothproofing. "Now we look at dry cleaning as causing more damage than good," says Peter Clark, registrar of the Hall. "The uniforms are extremely fragile." Not surprisingly. The oldest uniform in the collection belonged to a member of the Baraboo Base Ball Club of Baraboo, Wis., and has held together since 1866.

Each year a few of the older uniforms, as many as the budget will allow, are sent to the Museum of American Textile History's conservation center in North Andover, Mass., where they are analyzed, vacuumed for surface soil, immersed in a solution designed to neutralize the acidity of their fibers, patched or rewoven if necessary, blocked, wrapped in acid-free tissue paper, packed and returned to Cooperstown.

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