Stylin’ ballplayers

As we head into September signaling the near-end of the regular baseball season and the race for divisional, league and world championship titles, it seems fitting to include the uniforms of this legendary game in the context of fashion. 

Fashion, you say? Well, baseball uniforms, in particular, have long been associated with trends in men’s fashion from the introduction of pinstripes into men’s suits to bomber jackets and a variety of athletic wear and, of course, the signature baseball cap. 

For sure, athletes from all sports bring a certain cachet and individual style of their own to the playing fields, courts, stadiums and pitches — as in soccer, not baseball — on a global stage. But baseball, one could argue, is ingrained in our collective consciousness, as Americans and as fans of our national pastime. Players of a certain accomplishment are considered icons of the sport, hence baseball uniforms are, in turn, iconic. 

With a history dating from the mid-19th century, the sport has a long and storied fabric and it’s played mostly in summer in archetypal venues drawing millions of spectators. When uniforms were formally introduced in 1849 it was by the New York Knickerbockers, who wore blue wool pants, a white flannel shirt and straw hats. Many iterations have evolved over the years, with numbers generally appearing on shirts in 1916 and names in 1960, a tradition adopted by every major league club except for the New York Yankees, holdouts who never added players’ names to their home or away uniforms. Since the turn of the 20th century, the unseasonable materials of years ago have long been replaced with cotton and synthetic jerseys that are still the norm of the day. 

And, unlike other sports, particularly those played individually rather than by a team (have you seen a NASCAR driver lately?), baseball uniforms have remained blissfully unadorned. Only subtle variations appear from player to player — heavy chains or beads worn around the neck come to mind. Some players wear their socks in the traditional high form, others low. Dave Robertson, one of the Yankees’ current relief pitchers, has always favored the high knee sock-look. And fun fact, David and his wife, Erin, named their charitable foundation, which provides relief to victims of natural disasters and veterans, High Socks for Hope. 

Some players wear their pants ultra-fitted, others baggy but, for the most part, members of a team all look alike, staying true to the definition of a uniform garment — “dress of a distinctive design or fashion worn by members of a particular group and serving as a means of identification” — according to Merriam-Webster. When the members of our teams take the field, at home or away, we identify and relate to them based on their appearance. 

The only significant twist on the traditional jersey, pants and cap are the uniform adornments that made their major league debut in 1996 on Father’s Day to create awareness for prostate cancer, in the form of light blue-colored wristbands and ribbons. Major League Baseball donates the royalties from the sale of its specialized, licensed uniform products worn on special days to relevant charities associated with the day, a practice that has been adopted by other sport franchises. 

Uniform embellishments are featured five times throughout the regular season. The other four are Jackie Robinson Day, benefitting his namesake foundation, and occurring annually on April 15 when all players wear his number in place of their own to honor “number 42,” who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. There is a tribute in pink to Moms on Mother’s Day benefitting Susan G. Komen for the Cure, stars and stripes for Independence Day — for MLB charities, which benefit service men and women and veterans — and camouflage on Memorial Day weekend, also for MLB charities. 

As a lifelong fan of the game — yes, Yankees — and for further immersion into the topic, I ventured to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (NBHOFM) in Cooperstown, New York, where tribute is paid to the game’s legends and their varied accessories. There are more than 40,000 three-dimensional such artifacts, uniforms among them, in the museum’s impressive halls, in addition to the marble and oak-vaulted literal Hall of Fame, where plaques honor the chosen 1 percent in baseball who played the game with remarkable achievement. Mostly, the uniforms that make it into their galleries are those worn by a particular player on the day or evening during which he achieved a specific milestone or set an historic record. 

If baseball conjures images of an organized sport played at a leisurely pace for the past 169 years, the NBHOFM has been true to its mission to “preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations.” Genteel, dignified and unhurried, this three-story brick shrine to the sport lives up to its rich history. Fans of all ages gravitate to exhibits that hold a particular meaning for them, as families and Little League teams in town for summer camps move in packs around the cleverly arranged floors. Craig Muder, the museum’s director of communications, urges me not to miss the Hall of Fame’s newly renovated theater, which projects a concise 15-minute, artfully produced film throughout the day featuring legends of the game. 

The ramp on which you enter the theater was installed to evoke the feeling of walking up a ramp and entering a stadium, with the baseball diamond just coming into view as you reach the crest. It’s magic in the making as you can almost hear the familiar chords introducing the National Anthem. 

Now, let’s go Yankees!

For more, visit baseballhall.org.

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