Baseball Uniform History
Perhaps no sport has produced as decorated and nostalgic a uniform as baseball. About 4,000 different styles have been worn by Major League baseball players just since 1976. Major and little league baseball uniforms today consist of jerseys, pants, socks, shoes, caps, gloves, and a signature logo unique to the team.
A General History
Team baseball uniforms are as old as the New York Knickerbockers who first wore them on April 4, 1849. They simply consisted of blue wool "pantaloons" (baggy full-length trousers), white flannel shirts, and straw hats. By 1882 custom baseball uniforms had begun to include stockings, and teams adopted their own colors and patterns to distinguish one team from another. Vertical stripes had become very popular by 1888, and by the turn of the century most all Major League teams were striped.
Many teams had two uniforms, one for the home turf which was usually white, the other for the road which was generally solid gray, blue or black. Every team experimented with its own look. In came checkers, introduced in 1889 by the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. The New York Giants wore purple-lined baseball uniforms, the Kansas City Athletics in 1863 donned gold and green. It's truly fascinating to see how every article of baseball uniforms, from hats to shoes, has evolved over the years, and how the uniform associated with our favorite pastime has influenced American culture and everyday life.
Baseball Jerseys, Vests, and Jackets
The first collarless Jersey was worn by the New York Giants in 1906. Turn of the century jerseys were basically a flannel pullover with full sleeves and a buttoned or laced front and a fold down collar, often with a pocket on the breast. By the end of the first decade collars were turning up and being fastened at the throat, the "cadet" style made popular by the Cubs for about three years, from 1909-1912, but the collarless jersey remained in use. Often these jerseys included under-sweaters to add to the look and color of the jersey. With the onset of World War I, some teams continued to wear the laced shirt while others brought back the fold-down collar and by 1915 the shirt pocket was history. The 1920s standardized the V-neck, and what followed were alterations to the collar and sleeves, and the zipper front was becoming popular until about the 1950s and 60s.
The windbreaker type of jacket with gathered waist and wrists marked a jacket style of the 20s. In 1940 the Chicago Cubs popularized the sleeveless vest with under-sweater, which lasted only a few seasons, but returned in the fifties and sixties. The baseball "coat" in its early day was flamboyant-looking to say the least, only to be replaced by wildly patterned sweaters. The 1970s saw flannel fabrics becoming lighter and more breathable with shorter sleeves, but eventually that fabric was replaced by lighter, more durable double-knit fabrics.
Imagine those hot and humid, crazy days of summer baseball, and players wearing quilted trousers. Those were the earliest days. Thankfully in 1868 the Cincinnati Red Stockings introduced the "knickers" which had undergone little change since the turn of the early 1900s. The Chicago White Sox was the first team to wear shorts, in 1976.
The 1990s clothed players in new, close-trimmed pants in which pant legs ran clear to the tops of shoes. Now both knee-length and full length pants were worn on the field at the same time. This style gave players a little wiggle room for creating new unique looks, and the traditional stirrup pant leg that ran under the shoe was disappearing.
Baseball stockings didn't just absorb sweat. In many cases they became a team's signature, distinguishing one team from another. The Cincinnati Red Stockings in the 1860s paved the way, followed by such teams as the St. Louis Brown Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings. But like the quilted trouser, it's difficult to imagine early baseball players enduring woolen articles of clothing during the hot summer months, but they did. Even on their feet, to just above the knee.
Baseball sock history really began when trousers were replaced with knickers, but the twentieth century is most remembered for being a time of experimentation with design to create a signature look. Teams took liberties with all kinds of multi-tonal patterns. In the early 1900s stirrup socks became popular, but eventually the stocking became a less visible article as pant legs lowered and stirrups got higher. Early twentieth century trends included the striped "candy cane" style, popularized by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Shoes and Cleats
The earliest baseball players wore basic leather shoes. By about the early 1900s, baseball shoes were black. It wasn't until the 1960s that players began to brighten up their feet, beginning with the Kansas City Athletes, the first to wear white shoes.
Banned in 1976 by the official rulebook, removable cleats have been worn since the 1860s. Today players wear shoe plates attached to the soles of the shoe underneath the toe and heal.
Caps and Helmets
Just about every American has thrown the traditional baseball cap on their heads before heading out on a warm, sunny day. That's how much a part of our culture the baseball cap has become. The basic cap with crown and visor has topped the baseball uniform since the beginning, with the exception of the very first baseball hat made of straw. Baseball caps have undergone many experiments, all fundamentally designed to keep the sun out of the eyes. The Brooklyn Excelsior's first sported the rounded top and bill in the 1860s, but no formal laws governed the official look and so, like the sock, the hat endured some rather wild trends.
Some of the more unforgettable designs included the "pillbox" style of the 1890s. The "Brooklyn" design featured a higher, more rounded crown than its predecessor, the classic snug-fitting cap topped with a button. The teen years featured a "cake box" style, but today the baseball hat appears to have settled on its earlier classic design, which has changed little in recent decades.
Protective headgear became a required part of baseball uniforms in the early 1970s. The baseball helmet prevents injury from the occasional wallop to the head by a wild pitch - an especially important feature of little league baseball uniforms. Fashioned after the classic baseball hat, it includes a visor to protect against the sun. Although batting helmets became Major League law in 1971, they've been around since 1907. The first one was created by legendary catcher Roger Bresnahan after he sustained a brutal blow during a game. The helmet covers the top, back, and sides of the head, and the ear on the batting side. Major League bat boys and girls are required to wear them also.
Since the 1870s, the baseball glove has been protecting hands against injury from catching the ball. Prior to that, the hazards of the game were simply endured without it, lest a baseball player be called a "sissy". First invented to knock the ball to the ground, the glove began with simple swatches of leather sewn together and slipped over the hand. Padding was added for additional protection.
Star pitcher-turned-baseman Albert Spalding is thought to be the first to wear the glove in 1877, when he walked onto the field with his fingerless, padded, black leather baseball glove. He cared little about the jeers and sneers it might have produced from discriminating spectators. Turns out the glove became so popular that he turned his invention into a mail order business, catchers being his best customers. Controversially, others say the first to wear a protective glove was Doug Allison of the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1870 because of an injured left hand.
Over the years the baseball glove has evolved from pieces of leather sewn together and padded, to high technology gloves featuring woven, basket-style pockets and webbing such as what we see today.
Logos, Patches, Symbols and Numbers
Graphics have been a part of baseball uniforms since the beginning. Logos were used to identify various teams and their nicknames, and often became ornamental marketing tools. By the 1930s just about every Major League team had its own signature logo worn on their home jerseys. The first team to spell out their nickname on their jerseys was the Washington Senators who called themselves the Nationals, which they boldly displayed in large letters across their chests. This idea swept the Major League baseball industry, and some teams became quite creative with this and it soon became a very successful marketing trend. Memorable designs include the elephant, first worn by the Oakland Athletes in 1905, and the notorious Cardinal logo of 1922 displayed by the St. Louis Cardinals with its distinct two birds on bat design. As for some of the more striking logos, who could forget that of the Toronto Blue Jays? Not to mention the ones that began to appear with the proliferation of color TV, the perfect advertising medium, such as the colorful Rainbow design used by the Astros in 1975. Despite the growing trend toward experimenting with color and design, some teams remained modest in favor of keeping the focus on the game of baseball.
As much a part of our culture as baseball was, and still is, its uniforms began to include patches to commemorate special events in American history. The Chicago White Stockings in 1907 was the first Major League team to sport the shoulder patch. World Wars I and II rendered patriotic patches worn by Major League teams of the era, and the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National League in 1925 found players wearing patches to commemorate that event. Patches were subsequently worn to honor other major milestones in baseball history, and usually on the sleeve. Sixteen Major League teams donned a centennial patch, and in 2001 every US team honored the fallen in the World Trade Center disaster with a special patch.
Not Just a Number
When the Reading Red Roses began to number their players, fans began to identify them. Numbers became a permanent feature of the baseball uniform. The Cleveland Club wore their numbers on their sleeves, beginning in 1916. The New York Yankees displayed large numbers on their backs, and the first set of numbers represented the batting order of the players. And that didn't change much. By 1932, all Major League players were assigned numbers. The Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 was the first team to display numbers on the front of their home jerseys. In later decades numbers moved to other places on the uniform, such as on pants and on the backs of jerseys.
Early baseball uniforms were made of either a cotton and wool blend, or hundred-percent wool flannel. By the 1940s fabrics became half as heavy, but the caveat was shrinkage resolved by the invention of synthetic fabrics after World War II. In the 1960s, wool-orlon became the most commonly used fabric. The 1970s produced more breathable, lightweight uniforms, making flannel fabrics history. Typical colors were white when on the home turf, and dark hues when on the road. The baseball uniform underwent variations in design, including such popular designs as pin-striping and plaid.
For all the change and wild experimentation with Major League baseball uniforms, some ideas hit home while others struck out, but it all appears to be settling on a style as timeless as the game itself. What does the future hold for baseball uniforms? While we're not sure, safe to say that as long as they're still playing ball, whatever works will remain in the ball park.