Baseball's not-always-winning fashions

It's not easy to predict what a major-league baseball team will be wearing next season, much less decades from now. Clubs like to change their fashions often. It generates fan interest and creates fresh souvenir products.

Imagine, though, that it's 2021. That's exactly what spectators did at some big-league ballparks recently.

Major League Baseball peered into the future with a series of "Turn Ahead the Clock" games. Twenty-two clubs played games in which their usual uniforms stayed in their lockers. For a day, at least, the teams played as if it was 2021, complete with futuristic caps and jerseys.

No one knows for sure what they will be wearing then. But Anne Occi's design team had fun making a forecast. Ms. Occi is vice-president of design services for Major League Baseball. "I knew how controversial looking ahead would be," she says. "Baseball is so steeped in tradition." Most teams keep their "looks" for 15 years or longer, to maintain their identities.

For the San Francisco Giants, a huge "SF," big enough to be read from the center-field bleachers, dominated the front of the jersey. The Mets and the Pirates were transformed into the Mercury Mets and the Pirates of planet Pittsburgh, with space-age styles to match.

In past years, teams have also ridden an imaginary time machine backwards, playing in old-fashioned uniforms to honor various anniversaries.

But no one associated with baseball has done more time-traveling than Marc Okkonen. He's an artist who lives in Muskegon, Mich.

Mr. Okkonen wrote "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" (Sterling, 1991). In it he has drawings of every uniform worn by every pro team through 1991.

After doing all that research, you would think he'd have a favorite uniform. He doesn't.

"I've looked at so many," he said - about 3,000 of them, in fact, "that they kind of blur together after a while." He still has to refer to his own book to say when a particular team wore a particular style of jersey, or changed the lettering, or the stripes on the socks.

Okkonen was a fashion detective. Compiling his book took about five years of digging up facts, studying old photographs, looking at newspaper stories, and even going to look at old uniforms owned by collectors and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Purple plaid, anyone?

In the early 1900s, players wore heavy flannel uniforms, with baggy, knee-length trousers and caps with stubby visors.

They looked old-fashioned, but they weren't drab. "Some of the designs were pretty radical - colorful and bizarrely styled - in the early days," he says.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, for example, used a criss-cross pattern on their 1907 road uniforms. The New York Giants donned a plaid of purple pin stripes in 1916.

The 1901 Baltimore Orioles' road uniform was pretty daring, too. It was all black, except for a few yellow-orange highlights. (Inspired by the oriole's natural coloring, no doubt.) Fans didn't like the uniforms, though, so the team switched back to gray for its away-game uniforms.

In general, Okkonen says, "the pendulum always seems to swing back to something more conservative" in uniform style. "Baseball is just so bound up in tradition."

Back to buttons and belts

Nowadays, for example, the fashion is to wear jerseys that button up the front and pants with belts. These had fallen out of favor during the double-knit era of the 1970s. Back then, pullover jerseys and elasticized waistbands were popular.

What especially pleases Okkonen about this return to tradition is that players are hitching up their pantlegs again. This exposes their colorful socks. Socks have often been hidden by players who wore ankle-length pants.

Some teams - the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Cincinnati Reds (short for "Red Stockings") - owe their very identity to their socks. Covering them up is like "having your team name on your underwear, where you can't see it," Okkonen says.

Some design innovations have long since disappeared. Jerseys that zipped up the front were popular in the 1930s and '40s. The Brooklyn Dodgers wore satiny uniforms for night games in the 1940s. The White Sox didn't last one season in shorts. That was in 1976.

New uniforms were winners

The New York Yankees, on the other hand, haven't changed much. Players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle have given Yankee pin stripes a certain status. (Chicago Cubs fans will point out that their team was probably the first to wear pin stripes, in 1907.)

Teams with poor records are the ones most likely to make big changes in their uniforms. By leaving the old uniforms behind, maybe they can leave their losing ways behind, too.

This is what the Kansas City (Mo.) Athletics did in the mid-1960s, when Athletics owner Charlie Finley outfitted his team in bright green and yellow uniforms.

Yankee manager Ralph Houk was skeptical. "Nobody wins pennants in screwball uniforms," Houk supposedly said.

The A's proved him wrong. The Athletics, after moving to Oakland, Calif., won the World Series for three years straight in 1972, '73, and '74. Not only that, but they wore white shoes, too.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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