By Mike Shannon
Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. This maxim applies to many things in life including baseball uniforms, and the idea is the basis of a fun and informative new book by Todd Radom called Winning Ugly: A Visual History of the Most Bizarre Baseball Uniforms Ever Worn.
While an absolute-must for any collector of baseball uniforms, this book will appeal to virtually any fan who is the least bit interested in baseball sartorial history or to anyone who is engaged by nostalgia.
As the author makes clear, for most of its long history baseball has been rather conservative in its dress. Right from the very beginning with their knickered white pants and bright red socks, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings established the basic baseball uniform, and things didn’t change much for a long time. As some of the excesses of the early style (high collars and chest shields) disappeared, major league teams exhibited a crisp but subdued “button-down Wall Street” approach manifested in the almost universal adoption of the dress code of white at home and gray on the road. Modest red or blue piping down the pants and around the end of the shirt sleeves constituted the colorization of the outfit, in addition to socks and caps of a matching color. This “uniformity” served the game well, allowing the principals to focus on the game itself, even if the more artistic and free-thinking elements of fandom found the sameness boring.
And this uniformity did not always prevail. In the first of the nine chapters in the book, Radom discusses some of the early outliers, including the 1872 Baltimore club of the National Association which appeared “clad in yellow pants, white shirts, white hats, and ugly looking black and yellow stockings.” The socks, which mimicked the distinctive diamond pattern of the Maryland state flag, raised eyebrows, but it was the yellow pants which started tongues wagging. Because of them the team endured nicknames such as “Mustard Trowsers,” “Yellow Legs,” and “Dandelions.”
In 1882 the National League itself went rogue, mandating that players be dressed according to their positions on the field. For example, every catcher was dressed in scarlet, every right fielder wore scarlet and white stripes, and so on. Team identification was accomplished via all nine players of the same team wearing the same color stockings (e.g., Buffalo players all wore gray stockings). Fortunately, this crazy scheme was abandoned after one season. The most surprising uniform innovator among early mavericks was John McGraw, the crusty firebrand manager of the New York Giants. It was McGraw who sent his charges onto the field for the first game of the 1905 World Series dressed all in black (he did the same thing in 1911). McGraw topped that shocker in 1916 when he dressed his Giants in a “crosshatched plaid” of purple color. Naturally, the photo in the book of McGraw wearing these outlandish baseball togs is in black & white, since color photography had not been invented yet; but that is probably just as well.
After the Golden Age of baseball, variations from the solid white and gray template were few and far between: the Cincinnati Reds wearing “flaming-red pants for a couple of night games in 1936” and the Cubs and Dodgers trotting out powder blue uniforms for a few games here and there.
According to Radom, the modern era of garish, “ugly” baseball uniforms was ushered in by none other than Charlie Finley, the quintessential baseball maverick; who in 1963 designed green and gold uniforms for his Kansas City Athletics. Said Finley, who chose the color scheme in honor of his favorite college football team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish: “My feeling is that baseball should do everything possible to add color to the game.” Maybe, but acceptance of any deviation from the drab look baseball had become accustomed to was slow in coming. Critics called the A’s uniforms “bizarre” and “clownish” and said the team resembled “organ grinder’s monkeys” and “girl’s softball players.” It was even rumored that Ralph Houk did not play Norm Seibern, the A’s lone selection to the team, in that summer’s All-Star Game because he thought Seibern’s uniform would embarrass the American League.
Nevertheless, Finley had pried open the door to Pandora’s closet, and it was inevitable that a veritable fashion show of new clothing creations would walk down baseball’s runway in the following years; the 1970s and ’80s being the hey day of the dazzling baseball duds. And this period is really the heart of the book, which features numerous full-color photos of the uniforms, mostly jerseys, that made the era the most colorful in baseball history; at least in terms of clothing. These uniforms also provide many of the book’s laughs, in the form of Radom’s comments or quotations from those who reluctantly donned them or witnessed them being worn.
For instance, after the Baltimore Orioles wore solid orange uniforms against the New York Yankees on Sept. 16, 1971, the Baltimore Sun called the uniforms “four shades more lustrous than a ripe autumn pumpkin.” When Boog Powell, a giant of a man, appeared in the Cleveland Indians’ all-red uniform of the mid-’70s, Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger likened him to “the biggest Bloody Mary I ever saw.” Powell himself said, “I feel like a massive blood clot.”
Some of the other classic “ugly” uniforms celebrated in the book are the Seattle Pilots’ sea-faring themed suits, the Philadelphia Phillies all-maroon get-ups, the stylized “Indian feather-on the shoulder” look of the 1972 Atlanta Braves, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ hideous jerseys with kaleidoscopic-graded lettering, and the all-powder blue uniforms that became so popular for a time that by 1980 eleven of baseball’s 26 teams would sport them.
The more memorable “uglies” get more attention and include: the Chicago White Sox’s infamous navy blue collared “softball” jerseys and shorts; the San Diego Padres’ brown-orange-and-yellow “taco” shirts; the White Sox’s mid-’80s jerseys featuring the blocky “license plate” SOX band across the chest; the Montreal Expos’ red-white-and blue ensemble highlighted by the team’s enigmatic “M-l-e” logo which the author expertly attempts to dissect; the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dizzying versatility line (featuring pill box caps) which offered the team 12 different combinations; and the daddy of all modern bizarre baseball uniforms to be worn by major league teams, the Houston Astros’ “Tequilla Sunrise” orange-yellow-and-red striped shirts which resembled an abstract painting as much as a baseball uniform.
Towards the end of the book, Radom includes photos of some of the more notorious examples of what has become one of the most popular of all promotions, teams reviving old uniform looks during “Turn Back the Clock” nights. And he concludes the book with a chapter called “Turning Ahead the Clock” in which he tries to imagine what major league baseball uniforms in the 2020s will look like. It’s an enjoyable exercise but not nearly as much fun as simply reveling in memories about the ugly uniforms some teams have already provided for our entertainment.
In the end, we return to where we started and ask the defining question: Who says the uniforms in Radom’s book are “ugly”? So they’re different from the staid conventional never-changing looks of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Sometimes … if you ask me, Todd Radom, and millions of other fans of crazy baseball uniforms … different is good! (“Winning Ugly” is a 170-page hardcover book from Sports Publishing, an imprinit of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. It retails for $24.99.)
Mike Shannon is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.