The Lost Art of Wearing a Uniform

Nov 1, 2013   //   by bwilber   //   Bob on Baseball  //  4 Comments

The baseball postseason tends to bring a lot of “lost” or forgotten fans back to the fold, if only temporarily. One has to assume it’s the massive national attention, combined with  prime-time games on a major network, that somehow snare those previously semi-interested followers and gets them to pay attention again, if only for a night or a few innings. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

As a perfect example of this magnetic pull, I recently got an email from a dear old friend I have not seen in decades, and in a Rip Van Winkle sort of way she asked (and I’m paraphrasing here) “What on Earth happened to baseball pants? These guys have them all the way down over their shoes. What happened to the stirrup socks, and those white socks you wore under them? Weren’t they called ‘Sani’s’ or something?”

Well… This trend toward long pants has been going on for quite a while, which illustrates how long my friend had been away from the game, and you can either blame it all on George Hendrick or give him the credit, depending on your viewpoint.  Hendrick had a distinguished Major League career, and he was a solid big league hitter for many years, but he’s most well known for being an integral part of the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals team, which brought a World Series title back to the Gateway City, and for being the first guy in “the show” to have his pants tailored and altered to extend down to his ankles.

George Hendrick, circa 1982, and his revolutionary pant legs.

George Hendrick, circa 1982, and his revolutionary pant legs.

I’ve never seen a good explanation or any reasoning behind this, mostly because Hendrick was an intensely private and (I suspect) distrustful guy, who was known as “Silent George” thanks to his refusal to even so much as speak to the media. I guess we can just assume that the mental drumbeat George followed in his career was different enough to give him the “fashion forward” idea of being the one guy on the field with long pants.

It took much of the 80s for the new trend to take hold at all, and (thankfully) it’s still not omnipresent in the big leagues. Every team seems to have at least one or two players who still wear their pant legs up high, just below the knees, although the vast majority of those guys wear simple soccer-style socks, with no stirrups or stripes. Even so, there are a few who thankfully buck the current trend completely (nefarious sorts, no doubt, who live in a counter-culture world of days gone by) by wearing old-school socks, complete with stripes (where applicable), stirrups, and even white sanitary socks beneath them (the aforementioned “sani’s”) and the sight of these transplants from another era can make a guy like me shake his head, rub his eyes, and wonder if time travel works in reverse. I had to do a double-take (complete with cartoon cowbell sound effect) to make sure the various Cardinals wearing stirrups in the World Series weren’t also wearing wool uniforms.

The overall evolution of baseball uniforms is a well-documented transformation, dating back to the origins of the game, and most of the slow changes took place more out of necessity or because of fabric improvement, rather than a nod toward fashion. Still, once the game entered the 60s, fashion became important in an era when looking hip was as important as being cool. Or vice-versa, it’s hard to remember. Of course, the 60s led to the 70s, and the 70s gave us those all-red Cleveland Indians’ uniforms, the Padres’ mustard yellow abominations, and the Chicago White Sox wearing shorts, so there is that. Nobody’s perfect.

Rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel (or the stirrup, or double-knit pants) I’ll leave you to your own Googling devices to find any of the in-depth stories out there on the evolution of the baseball uniform. I’d start with the best of the best, a column called “Uni Watch” that is part of ESPN.com, and I’ll simply add my 2.5-cents and a few recollections below, in my attempt to understand, illustrate, and even possibly sympathize with today’s look. I’m not sure I can really do the sympathy part, but I also feel the need to not become “that guy” in the crotchety old-school vein, who can’t stand anything new or different and fully believes we’ll never again see anything like the good old days. In other words, I’m trying hard not to become any of our fathers.

In short (pun intended), baseball knickers survived for many decades, and with them came stirrups and sanitaries. The condensed version of the reason for the double-layer of socks was this: Teams wore color-coordinated socks (and yes, a few teams even named themselves after those socks, or “Sox” as it were, unless you were in Cincinnati in which case they were stockings, as in Red Stockings) but in a day when dyed fabrics contained toxic substances that could easily lead to infection, and with baseball players continually getting “nicked up” around the ankles, it became prudent to wear a pair of white “sanitary” hose under the socks. This, of course, meant players were wearing two bulky pairs of woolen socks during games, so a few industrious and creative souls cut the heels and toes out of the colored socks and stirrups were created. Before long, a little bit of the white sanitary socks were showing above the shoe tops, and the stirrups we all knew and loved for decades were born.

Fashion-forward players began to alter and lengthen the stirrup part of the socks in the 60s (thank you, Frank Robinson!) and it didn’t take long before the look consisted mainly of white hose interrupted by what looked like colored stripes going up each side. At some point in the 80s, a few manufacturers took advantage of the prevalence of overall laziness and simply made one-piece white socks with built-in stripes down the sides, for those who couldn’t be bothered to wear the full regalia. Frankly, at that point, the end was near.

Pants in the game also evolved slowly, due mostly to the equally slow introduction of anything new in the form of fabric. The heavy wool uniforms from the early 1900s through the 1950s must have been a joy to wear on hot muggy summer days, when all Major League games were played during the afternoon, and they also prohibited the players from any great amount of freedom of movement unless they were worn in a loose baggy style. Form follows function.

As more lightweight cotton blends were introduced, in the 60s, player began to have their pants tightened, to look a little more Carnaby Street and a little less frumpy. Even the best fabrics then, however, didn’t flex much and players had to weigh the pros and cons of restricted leg movement versus the need and desire to look cool.

Dick Stuart, a great big league hitter who was so inept defensively he was universally known as Dr. Strangeglove, and fashion-plate Yankee star Joe Pepitone were among the first to have their pants custom-tailored to fit as tightly as possible. As Stuart so perfectly said in Jim Bouton’s classic book “Ball Four” (the greatest baseball book ever written, and possibly the best sports book ever penned, but that’s a story for another day) “I add 20 points to my average when I know I look bitchin’ out there.”  I understand. Trust me, I understand. My sister Mary was presented the task of tailoring and tightening my pants every year in high school. I mean, ya gotta look bitchin’ out there. It’s important.

Not even JR Richard and Nolan Ryan could quite pull this off...

Not even JR Richard and Nolan Ryan could quite pull this off…

And then came double-knit polyester uniforms. Nothing has been the same since, but everything continues to change. The synthetic uniforms flexed, stretched, and could be tailored to fit like a second skin. Most players, from high school to the big leagues, chose to wear them as tightly as possible for a very long time. Stirrups got longer, pants got tighter, shirts altered from button-down to pull-over, and waist bands suddenly lost their belts as multi-colored bands of elastic were snapped together at the front to create a look that will forever scream “Welcome to the 1980s”. And let’s not forget the Houston Astros and their rainbow jerseys, as much as we’d all like to. What has been seen, can never be unseen.

All of that leads back to George Hendrick, who now in retrospect really only lengthened his pant legs about six inches, and he still left a sold two or three inches of socks showing. George even went to the trouble of wearing stirrups and sani’s, but the die had been cast, the toothpaste was out of the tube, the genie was out of the bottle, and the trend was in motion.

Today, many big leaguers appear to be wearing pajamas. Pants are insanely long, they are baggy and loose, and the overall appearance is one of a Wal-Mart shopper who struggled out of bed in the afternoon to put on his best pair of unwashed fleece sweatpants in order to go do the shopping. To say it’s a slovenly look would be to undersell the truly unattractive fashion sense many players are displaying these days. There you go, I’m all of our fathers wrapped up into one.

How did we get here? Can it all be blamed on fashion? Can it all be blamed on laziness? The fashion question must be part of the equation, and I’m smart enough to know that as we get older the fashion choices of those coming up into their own adulthood behind us seem ridiculous, generation after generation. We thought our hip-hugger bellbottom jeans looked great in 1968. Our parents thought we were nuts. Looking back, they were right and we looked more than a little foolish, but it was our right to do so and the rebelliousness of it felt like the right thing to do compared to the preppie looks of the 1950s. All said, I’ll admit it’s likely that today’s baseball “fashion” is no more than a typical generational pushback, a reaction to the previous styles now seen as outdated and stale. It happens on the street, in the classroom, and on the runways at “Fashion Week” so why shouldn’t it happen in baseball? At least these guys keep their pants pulled up to a normal spot on their waists, and with a return to buttons and belts (not to mention the regularity of weekend “throwback” unis) the uniforms in Major League Baseball are more artistically attractive now than they have been for generations.

As for laziness, I don’t buy it. Today’s major league players are, by almost all accounts, the most active and dedicated athletes to ever play the game. They work longer hours, year-round, than just about any generation of players before them. They sweat and toil in the gym, hit endless rounds of BP in the cage, and study video more than a Hollywood editor. They are not lazy. But they also don’t know how to dress. Or if they do, they choose to do so in a way that makes them feel they are creating their own landmark niche. I guess it’s not a lot different than when the first guys stretched and lengthened their stirrups, or when Dick Stuart custom-tailored his pants to fit as tightly as possible, because it added 20 points to his average when he knew he looked bitchin’ out there. I just have to wonder if some of today’s big leaguers can look in a mirror and think “I’m going four-for-four today, because I look bitchin’…”

Now here I go, risking the very statements I was trying to avoid, knowing I’m going to sound like the old codger who stated as fact “Back in my day, we walked to school in the snow, in our bare feet, and it was four miles uphill each way…”  Kids these days. Sheesh.

I couldn't hit, but I knew how to look bitchin' out there

I couldn’t hit, but I knew how to look bitchin’ out there

Bottom line, I simply don’t understand where today’s players lost the love for how they look as part of the history of the game, while they also seem to have misplaced the pride it takes to make sure the do just that. For me (and most of the guys I ever played with) wearing the uniform the “right way” was important. No, it was critical, and it was a matter of the aforementioned pride. But just wearing it the right way was only part of the equation. Getting dressed, taking our time to do it right and in a specific manner and order, was as much fun and as important as how we looked once we walked out of the dugout and onto the field. It just can’t be as much fun or as rewarding to throw on a baggy pair of pants and hit the field.

Beginning as early as high school, the long slow (enjoyable) process of getting dressed for a game was something I savored. It got me into the right mental state, it allowed me to concentrate on small details while I slowly ramped up my mind for the speed of the game. It was a process, it was a formula, it was a personal thing each player approached in his own way, and it was as much a part of the game as batting practice, infield, and the actual nine innings.

Before “boxer briefs” were ubiquitous in every Target store, and before the wizards at Nike or Under Armour ever dreamt of compression shorts, we searched out what we called “baseball underwear” as the foundation for getting dressed. Mid-thigh in length and tight fitting, the cotton shorts gave us an extra layer of protection against the “strawberries” we all constantly dealt with from sliding on hard and rocky infields, while also allowing us to fight off that pesky irritation (it was not technically a rash, since it was created by friction) on the insides of the upper legs, caused by those wonderful jock straps we wore (and with all of today’s high-tech shorts, I’m not even sure guys wear jocks today).

Sanitaries went on next, and I often wore two pairs for a little extra protection against heel blisters. After the sani’s, the stirrups went on and they had to be meticulously examined to make sure the arches at the top of the stirrups were exactly the same height on each leg. There was nothing more embarrassing than seeing a guy with one stirrup an inch longer than the other. (The previous two sentences illustrate the fact I never wore my stirrups so high that only colored stripes showed on the sides of my legs. I let the weekend softball players do that…)

Did you know that most stirrup socks had an actual front and back? Yep, the height of the stirrup in front was generally an inch or two shorter than it was in the back. For me then, in college and pro ball, I wore my stirrups so that the front showed about a half-inch to an inch of color at the top, and that would mean that the stirrup in back would disappear under the bottom of my pant leg, about six inches down from the knee. I added a half-step of speed toward first base knowing I looked bitchin’ out there.

The next step was something most fans probably never thought about or pondered. Sanitaries had no flex band at the top, and they were a one-size-fits-all tube sock of very thin and breathable cotton. In other words, they had no ability to keep themselves up. Put on a pair of sanitaries, by themselves, then walk across the clubhouse to get a new pack of Red Man tobacco, and they’d be at your ankles before you opened the pack. Stirrups were no different, although they were typically of a stretch material and would cling a little better. Put it all together, though, and you needed a method to keep your socks up.

Some guys went with a fold-over of the sanis at the top, so that they were on top of the stirrup, and then they’d twist one corner of the sanitaries to tighten them, before tucking that twist back under the socks. To me, this was a foreign and implausible solution. In other words, it never worked and if I had to spend one second in the dugout readjusting  my socks, I was not a happy ballplayer. I also knew I didn’t look bitchin’ out there, and my confidence would plummet.

Some used rubber bands, and I joined that group from time to time although I found the need for a tight enough rubber band created a scenario in which the blood flow to my ankles and feet would be restricted. Let’s just say I never had Popeye-style calf muscles, so keeping my socks up was a matter of sheer tightness in the right spot. I finally settled on tape, the standard white athletic type, and no pre-game routine would ever again be completed without taping my socks up. Of course, the tape would leave a sticky residue if applied directly to the stirrups, so the sanitary “fold over” above the calf had to be implemented, and then a couple of rotations of tape around the whole thing took care of it it. My socks never sagged. I always looked bitchin’ out there.

It was a wonderful process, getting dressed. In the minor leagues, I was consistently one of the first guys to arrive at the park and one of the last to leave. I could spend hours in the clubhouse, in various states of half-dress, stretching the process out from 1:00 until 3:00, eating seeds and chewing tobacco while I eased into another “work day” in a methodical manner, waiting for the first pitch at 7:00 p.m.  Maybe it was just my way of extending every day, as a way to make my short and uneven career seem to last as long as it possibly could. It still went by way too fast.

I’m afraid I’d feel like I was living in a bad dream if I was playing today, dressed like the current crop of players. In that dream, I’d find myself on the field in front of a big crowd, about ready to step to the plate with the bases loaded, but I’d look down and realize I’m not wearing my uniform. Instead, I’m wearing pajamas, and they feel as sloppy and unattractive as they look. I’m afraid, if I dressed like so many of today’s big leaguers, I’d instantly lose 20 points off my average because I’d know the every last thing I looked like was anything approaching bitchin’…

But I’m just an old guy now. What do I know…?

  • Del Wilber

    Awesome !

  • Denis

    Great job, Bob,
    I probably could write something similar about Hockey uniforms and equipment!

  • Dana

    Go to an Astros game now and you will see quite a few people in the stands wearing the rainbow jerseys.

  • Alan Collums

    Our local AA minor league team, the Mississippi Braves, have it mandated to them from the parent Atlanta Braves that everyone is clean shaven and they wear knee length pants. That makes me happy! We’ve been lucky in that our Skippers through the years have pretty much all been long time baseball men. They understand the importance of being well dressed and looking bitchin!

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