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150 years of baseball...fashion?

By Jim Regan / July 10, 2003



This year marks the 70th anniversary of professional baseball's All-Star game - but the July 15 extravaganza is the 74th edition of the event. That morsel of creative mathematics is just one part of the history of the American national pastime - and while there may be disputes about various aspects of the game itself (such as its origins), it would appear that the Cooperstown Hall of Fame has a definite opinion about the first official baseball uniform. (First worn by New York's Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1849, baseball's first uniform consisted of a white flannel shirt, blue wool pants and a straw hat.)

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Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform is the Hall of Fame's authoritative account of 150 years of baseball fashion. After an introduction that nicely sums up the uniform's significance to both fans and players, Dressed to the Nines' first exhibit reduces team attire to its essential components. Caps, follows the development of what may well be America's most globally-recognized 'fashion' accessory - from the straw hats of 1849, through pillboxes and the Philadelphia Style, to "Perhaps the most striking baseball cap of modern times..." - the Montreal Expos design abandoned in 1991. A historical survey of the use of numbers on jerseys (which may seem like a perfectly reasonable feature today), reveals that early adopters were so ridiculed by fans and opposing players that it adversely affected morale. It wasn't until 1937 that a team dared to put numbers on their home jerseys. (This section also includes a complete list of AL and NL retired numbers - a practice that began with Lou Gehrig's #4 in 1939.). Other elements include evolutions in team lettering, jersey design (at one point uniform colors were determined by a player's position on the field), and those oh-so-fashionable knee-length pants.

Then a uniform Timeline places innovations in a chronological rather than anatomical perspective, and includes a few 'trends' that lasted only hours. (One example being the '76 Chicago White Sox's very brief history with short pants - abandoned after the first half of a double header.) For the devoted fan, an interactive Uniform Database allows visitors to track down specific ensembles by selecting the desired combinations of city, league, and year, while the last feature, Activities, offers younger visitors a Mix-and-Match Flipbook, a team-based Geography quiz, and a uniform Logic Puzzle.

Clicking back to the Hall of Fame homepage reveals more exhibits, games and other attractions, but for period images of baseball styles, the Library of Congress offers Baseball Cards: 1887-1914. While the LoC interface isn't the friendliest when it comes to casual browsing (no pages full of thumbnails that can be surveyed at a glance), there are more than 2000 cards in this presentation - so the site's alternatives of keyword search and such browsing options of Players (Ty Cobb, Phenomenal Smith, Handsome Henry Boyle), Team (Cleveland Infants, Brooklyn Trolley-Dodgers), and City are more practical for a collection of this size. (When you arrive at the last step of any search, the resulting files can be viewed as thumbnails by selecting "Gallery View" at the top of the page.)

Both sides of each card are available for viewing (so you can also familiarize yourself with the baseball vernacular of the early 20th century), and very high resolution copies of the images are available for those interested in downloading and printing copies of their own. (A "Rights and Reproductions" link is posted at the top of every image page.) Subject cross-links are listed below each card to connect players, teams and leagues to other relevant files. Some style decisions at both sites will probably elicit a few double-takes, but whether the looks of today's uniforms make any more sense than those in the 1800s is probably more a matter of chronological perspective than anything else. (There are examples from every era that would be an embarrassment if seen out of context...or even in context.) One certainty is that there are more changes coming - especially given the financial incentive of frequently requiring fans to renew their souvenir collections. Another certainty is that at least some of these 'new' designs will be based heavily on long-retired styles, so it may well be that the best way to stay ahead of the wave is simply to look way, way back.

Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform can be found at http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/exhibits/online_exhibits/dressed_to_the_nines, with Baseball Cards: 1887-1914 at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/bbhtml/bbhome.html.

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