There’s a Jerry Seinfeld bit (see below) where he argues that sports fans don’t actually hinge their allegiances on the players from their favourite teams but will support whoever wears the uniform. He might be right. Maybe fans have to stand by the uniforms rather than who’s wearing them out of self-preservation; a beloved player today might be gone out tomorrow in a blockbuster trade or lost to free agency. Legions of fans have grown up cheering for one team and despising another equally as fervently because of the colours they wear. Seinfeld has a point: on some level we’re just cheering for the clothes.
Simple is better, 1849-1889
When team uniforms first emerged, the standard logo was not a logo at all: teams were designated a colour and identified by their socks. Teams like the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Cincinnati Reds who survived to the modern era still go by their colourful names.
To complicate the issue of identifying teams pre-logo, players were also identified by coloured shirts and hats based on what position they played. The confusing and dreadfully ugly “clown costumes” were eliminated mid-season in 1882, revived in 1888, and finally put to rest for good in 1889.
Don’t forget it
A cheeky trend that emerged from 1908 to 1927 saw World Series champions teams altering their uniforms to debut the following season. After capturing the top prize in baseball, the reigning champs would return to the field in jerseys that had their success emblazoned across the front instead, or in addition to, their team’s logo. If this trend had continued, all but six major league teams would be rocking the self-congratulatory duds.
By the time the 1940s and 50s came around, the creative boom really started happening for major league designers. Some looks from that era remain iconic fixtures of retro fashion, but others have been strategically scrubbed from baseball’s collective memory.
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A more curious trend that emerged as MLB teams experimented with their respective branding was the newspaper-style illustration. Fine lines with great detail adorned jerseys around the league.
Pittsburgh’s very serious pirate portrait looked like it was ripped from the pages of Treasure Island, but had surprising longevity from 1934 to 1957 until it was replaced by essentially its stylistic opposite, a cartoon buccaneer. The team continued to be loyal to the pirate head emblem, going through another three iterations before returning to the simplified P insignia in 2014.
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Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies had a fully illustrated play at the plate for the back half of the ‘40s until they embraced the futuristic ‘50s style of space imagery where the Phillies cap is the earth and a baseball is the orbiting moon, just like something out of the Jetsons’ playbook. After flirting with a simple P for a few years, Philly even took a swing at depicting 18th century outfits on their mascots for the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Needless to say, they returned to the classic letter mark in 1981.
The White Sox tried three different artistic styles (1939-48, 1960-75, 1976-90) to depict a player on their uniforms and, like the Phillies, thankfully returned to the word mark in the last few decades. Perhaps the delicate, illustrative work is fit for a different sport. The chunkier letters, like the Sox logo that has the big S with the O and X nested in the grooves seem to leave a greater impression.
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The 1978-86 Houston Astros have arguably the most recognisable and polarising classic uniform to have ever graced the diamond. They were still a little space-agey in some respects, but remained steeped in ‘70s yellows, oranges, and reds.
The Astros hired advertising firm, McCann Erickson, to rebrand the team after the first decade of Houston’s transition from their Colts era to the new Astros moniker. One side of the design team claimed the look represented a Texas sunset, representative of the Southwest. Two other members of the firm disputed the meaning and claimed they were just “in [their] stripe period.” Sometimes it’s just that simple.
For the Astros, their investment has paid off in at least the sheer column inches that have been devoted to discussing the stripes era. Esquire named this look to their Most Stylish Sports Uniforms of All Time list, while Sports Illustrated ranked them in the Ugliest Uniforms in Sports History. Disagreement aside, the “rainbows” still live on in throwback events and collectors’ closets around the world.
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A mid-century uniform trend that’s coming back around is the powder blue kit. Some of the most palatable MLB uniforms were once saturated with versions of light blue as the backdrop to their respective logos. Love them or hate them, they’re a part of MLB uniform heritage.
The pioneers of breaking with home white/road grey tradition were the 1941 Chicago Cubs, who introduced the road alternate blues and swiftly shelved them after a season. Soon thereafter, the 1944 Brooklyn Dodgers, who had just begun to play night games under the lights at Ebbets Field, kicked off a larger conversation about uniform designs that would help solve on-field problems. Since lighting technology was limited at the time, the field wasn’t nearly as illuminated as a day game. The team considered some options to mitigate some of those difficulties, one of which was their uniforms.
The Dodgers thought that shimmering satin fabric would allow the fans to follow play more easily, and would help players see each other better, so the team commissioned white satin home uniforms with powder blue for the road. Somehow the satin makes baseball seem like a more luxurious game.
While the fabric choice was short-lived, the colour choice was not. Major League Baseball’s expansion in the ‘60s saw both Seattle and Montreal choose blues for their road colours, the first teams in the modern era to do so. Once the ‘70s arrived and polyester replaced flannel as the league’s preferred uniform fabric, colours started popping, and popularity of powder blues soared.
Other perennial members of the blue crew over the years were the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals), the Kansas City Royals, the Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Toronto Blue Jays, who have each also dabbled in bringing the look back in recent years. The Royals and the Cards brought the throwback look back during the 2019 season. Whenever play resumes, Toronto will feature head-to-toe powder blue alternate jerseys to be worn both at home and on the road.
Toronto Blue Jays Alternate 2020 Jersey – Light Blue
As the baby blues continue to make the retro-cool comeback, the math shows that almost half of major league teams have made an appearance in them. Back in the original running, powder blue peaked at 11 of then 26 teams in the early ‘80s. Today, there are still lots clubs who can jump on the bandwagon if they’re feeling adventurous in the coming seasons. If the Mets can do orange and green, why can’t Baltimore do orange and powder blue? No? The jury’s still out.
Blame it on the heat
Special mention to three ‘90s expansion clubs and their commitment to creatures with scales.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays first took the field in 1998 and swiftly notched nine last-place finishes in their first decade as a franchise. Their woes were compounded with a universally maligned home ballpark and the decision to put a manta ray on their jerseys for many years. The uniforms turned out looking like part of a skatepark setup or a wonky boomerang dressed in bright yellows, greens, and blues. It’s no surprise that when new ownership stepped in prior to the 2008 season, they dropped the “devil” from their name and the marine life from their branding. Now Tampa Bay are just the Rays, less of the ocean-dwelling variety and more of the solar one.
Oh, Miami. Is it a marlin? Is it a swordfish? Hard to tell. After a deep dive into varieties of predatory deep-water fish, it’s clear the team has really strayed from the signature characteristics of their namesake, but understandably so, since hyper-realistic fish imagery doesn’t always make for the most striking design. The updated Marlins’ ocean blue and orange motif has shades of Mets style, only flashier for the hip Little Havana crowd. The most recent iteration of the Marlins’ look re-introduced the fish silhouette with a black, pinkish red, and bright blue palette. Somehow, they’re making it work.
The inspiration for the only desert-based MLB squad is, appropriately, the western diamondback rattlesnake. Arizona, another 1998 expansion club, is a bit of an outlier in that they’ve retained the original logo mark from their first season but have since adjusted the colour palette and added alternate logos. The club also garnered some attention when their branding was first announced, since Major League Baseball was typically conservative in colour choices, with black, white, and primary colours dominating uniforms at that time. Purple, teal, and even the faux-snakeskin Diamondbacks jerseys have all pushed the envelope for other teams to experiment with non-traditional styling, even if they have to take some heat for it first.
The team took the fanged, venomous creature and first shaped it into a D, then worked multiple letters into a snake’s head, and now have moved to the more conventional (maybe nothing about this is conventional) snake-biting-a-baseball logo. One wonders where they’ll go next.
Arizona Diamondbacks New Era Hat
Part of being a sports fan these days is putting up with teams changing their logos, wearing throwback (or throwforward) styles, and having an endless roster of alternates. It’s hard for the closet (and wallet) to keep up. Which clothes do you cheer for? Let us know in the comments!