“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
Let’s begin this article with a mental exercise. I’ll list a group of teams from Major League Baseball. You try to picture their uniform in your mind’s eye. Okay, ready? Here goes:
I’m willing to bet that the uniforms of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cardinals came to mind right away. Perhaps not so much the Angels and Indians.
Cleveland is never sure what it wants to do with its uniforms. According to Marc Okkonen’s “Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century“, the Indians have displayed four different capital “C’s” on their shirts using block lettering, script lettering, red shirts, and blue shirts. They have also utilized two different Indian character representations, including Chief Wahoo. In 1921, one season after winning the World Series, they wore shirts modestly emblazoned with “Worlds Champions“.
The Angels can’t even decide on a first name, let alone a uniform. They began life as “Los Angeles” over their first four seasons, then became “California” for over three decades. The club switched to “Anaheim” in 1997 before being rechristened the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” for the 2005 season. If you can’t remember where the team is from, how are you going to remember their uniform?
Granted, public image takes more than a snazzy uniform. With their 27 World Series championships, you would likely know the Yankees if they had played in blue jeans and t-shirts.
But some uniforms and their design elements have become iconic. You think of the team as soon as you see them. The Tigers and their old English D, the scripted and angled “S O X” on the jerseys of the Chicago White Sox, or the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk.
In many cases, teams started using these elements decades ago and, with a few interruptions, use them today. When founded in Philadelphia back in 1902, the Athletics put an old English A on their jerseys and, except for seven years, kept it there until leaving for Kansas City in 1954. For those seven years the A’s sported a white elephant on their shirts, and that’s a great story in itself, having to do with an early rivalry in the game between legendary managers Connie Mack and John McGraw.
One team, however, learned the hard way: leave tradition alone. When the Cardinals took the field for their first home game in 1956, Saint Louis fans were shocked to see that their uniforms no longer sported the familiar insignia of two redbirds perched on a bat. Instead the uniform simply featured “Cardinals” in script lettering and underlined. The fans of the Redbirds did not hesitate to voice their opinion regarding these changes and, to no one’s surprise, those two birds were back perched on that bat for the club’s 1957 uniform version. They have remained ever since.
Yet despite baseball fans generally being lovers of tradition, teams persist in changing their uniforms. They introduce new color schemes, logos and insignia, or replace the hat design. Why? Merchandising is the most obvious answer. New uniforms provide the ball club with new jerseys, tee shirts, and caps to sell.
Changes in circumstance also bring about uniform changes. When a team is about to move into a new stadium, it may try and change the very character of the team, and new unis seem to be one of the easiest ways. Houston’s name change from Colt .45s to Astros coincided with their move to the Astrodome.
Team identity and tradition can be another reason to make a uniform change. After taking over football’s New York Jets in 1997, head coach Bill Parcells brought back the team’s uniform design from the late 1960s, when the team had its greatest success in winning Super Bowl III.
The Jets have had a number of uniform changes since then and, getting back to baseball, there are a couple of teams that have gone through several uniform changes. According to Phil Hecken’s series “What’s Your Sign (ature) Uniform?“, the San Diego Padres have worn nine different uniforms since entering the National League in 1969. Hecken is Deputy Editor of Uni Watch, which Paul Lukas founded in 1999.
As noted, the Padres have made eight uniform changes over their 51-year history. Some perspective: Having played 137 seasons, had the Phillies changed their own uniform design as often as the Padres they would have gone through 24 design changes. Instead, over the last 70 years the Phillies have basically used two different uniform designs – though the club went through many of its own uniform changes during their earlier decades.
Sharp-eyed readers may notice that I’m not considering the increasingly popular “alternate” uniforms. Teams seem to introduce alternative unis and caps on a near-weekly basis now, wearing them for day games, holidays, as “throwbacks”, or other special occasions, leaving them out of any serious discussion on baseball garb.
Two other teams come to mind in terms of mucking around with their uniforms. The Arizona Diamondbacks have made three uniform changes during their brief two-decade history. The Houston Astros ball club altered their uniform a half-dozen times over the past six decades. As noted, however, one of those changes was due to a name change, so we can excuse that one.
Bottom line – if you like the clothes that your team is wearing this season, you had best get a snapshot. In another year or so, it may very well be history.