Uni Watch: Why linemen don't buy off-the-rack.

The stadium scene.
Dec. 16 2003 11:48 AM

Uni Watch

Why offensive linemen don't buy off-the-rack.

Stretching the limits
Stretching the limits 

Uni Watch, idly perusing a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, raised an eyebrow upon reading the following tidbit: "The Pittsburgh Steelers have a sewing machine in their locker room, so they can get each offensive lineman's jersey as tight as possible, making it more difficult for a defender to grasp." Intriguing news, this, especially since it raises a larger issue worth investigating: uniform modification and alteration.

While the sewing machine is a particularly nice touch, the Steelers aren't the first NFL team to use form-fitting jerseys to minimize opponents' handholds. The practice appears to date back to the Los Angeles Rams of the late 1970s, who sent their linemen's jerseys out to be tailored extra snug. By the mid-1980s, several players—most notably Jim Burt of the Giants—were stretching their jerseys so tight that their uniform numbers were distended. More recently, longtime linebacker and budding pharmacology researcher Bill Romanowski has been so obsessed with a skintight fit that he actually had drawstrings sewn into his jersey armpits during his tenure with the Broncos.

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Clutchability concerns have also led to uni modifications in the NBA, albeit of a less visible sort. According to Tom O'Grady, a participant in the excellent e-mail discussion list conducted by the Society for Sports Uniform Research, "Some players in the NBA, most notably Larry Johnson and Shaq, Velcro the bottom of their jerseys onto the inside section of their game shorts to make grabbing of their uniforms more difficult." O'Grady reports that these small fabric additions are sometimes seen on game-worn jerseys sold by memorabilia dealers.

But the best sport for uni modification is baseball, where players have been tinkering with their team-issued togs for generations. In the 1950s, Cincinnati Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski cut the sleeves from his jersey, the better to accommodate his sizable biceps. And in his 1970 book Ball Four, Jim Bouton reported that his teammate Dick Baney took his uniform to a tailor so that he wouldn't "look like a clown," and that many other players sliced the bottoms of their stirrups and had extra fabric sewn in, so the hosiery could be stretched higher. That way, Bouton wrote, "your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot."

That lesson would be lost on today's baseball players, most of whom wear their pant legs down to their ankles, a style that's recently spawned its own share of improvised modifications: Some players have cut the elastic out of their pant cuffs, so the pants will droop as low as possible; others have had a black stirrup band sewn onto their pant cuffs and looped it under their soles, to keep their pants stretched down in place; and a few enterprising souls have even pulled their pants down over their shoetops, cut a slit just above each cuff, and tied their laces through the slit, thereby keeping the pants bound in place.

The problem with uni modification, of course, is that it makes the uniform less, well, uniform, which is why Major League Baseball banned all of the above-listed pants alterations at the outset of the 2003 season. (For good measure, they also told Pedro Martinez to stop cutting slits in his jersey sleeves.) Similarly, in 2000 they put the kibosh on what had become a near-epidemic of players handwriting assorted tributes on their caps. And in 1997 they told Deion Sanders, then of the Reds, that he couldn't shorten his jersey sleeves in tribute to Jackie Robinson, which led the rest of the team to shorten theirs as well, rendering the edict moot. (Two years later, perhaps with an eye toward avoiding such conflicts in the future, the Reds switched to sleeveless vests.)

As for the other major team sport, Uni Watch is unaware of any hockey players who've modified their uniforms. True, some players have had their own sartorial styles, such as Wayne Gretzky, who famously wore his jersey hiked up on one hip, but that's not a physical alteration of the garment itself. If anyone knows of any icemen who've doctored their duds, Uni Watch is all ears.

Questions or suggestions for Uni Watch? Send mail here.

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