The return of colored baseball pants.

The stadium scene.
June 29 2004 3:35 PM

Uni Watch

The return of colored baseball pants.

And you thought Chief Wahoo was offensive ...
And you thought Chief Wahoo was offensive ...

If you're finding yourself befuddled by Major League Baseball's carnival of solid-colored alternate jerseys, you're not the only one. Things have gotten so convoluted that two Mets players recently took the field wearing the wrong uniforms. With jerseys reaching a saturation point, how long before we see a revival of colored pants? That's what Uni Watch wondered after the Cleveland Indians brought back their garish solid-red uniforms —originally worn in the mid-1970s—for a recent throwback promotion.

The Indians' red design may look odd today, but colored pants have had a larger presence in baseball history than you might think. Broadcasters and old-schoolers talk about the game's tradition of wearing white at home and gray on the road, but the tradition isn't quite that simple. Dark-colored jerseys with matching dark pants were fairly common in the game's early days, especially for the visiting team (probably because dark colors don't show as much dirt—a boon for teams that had trouble finding adequate laundry facilities while traveling). Every season from 1900 through 1917 featured at least one solid-colored team, and sometimes as many as five. Most franchises tried the solid style at least once during this period, including the Indians (known then as the Naps), Cubs, White Sox, Senators, Reds, Tigers, Braves, Giants, and Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees—the pinstripes didn't debut until 1912).

Although the white/gray format became entrenched in the 1920s, colored pants still made occasional appearances over the next few decades, most notably with the crimson-trousered uniforms worn by Cincinnati in 1936 and the reflective blue satins that the Dodgers experimented with for night games in 1944. But colored pants didn't come back in earnest until the early 1960s, when Charles O. Finley bought the Kansas City Athletics. Finley promptly dressed his new team in solid gold with green trim, an implicit nod to the increasing power of color television.

Finley's instinct to shake up baseball's color palette was a good one (incredibly, only one major league team prior to the '63 A's had ever worn green). But once he opened the floodgates, a wave of tacky designs followed, a fad furthered by the advent of polyester uniforms and the fashion insanity of the 1970s. Eyebrow-raisers from this period include the all-orange 1971 Orioles, the brown-on-yellow 1978 Padres, and the all-maroon 1979 Phillies—a design so widely ridiculed by fans and the media that it was retired after one game. Finley, not to be outdone, added an all-green outfit for the A's. But the concept was taken to an unwatchable extreme by the Pirates, who introduced an assortment of yellow and black uni elements in 1977 and spent the next eight years mixing and matching them in various bumblebee combinations, to generally horrifying effect. And don't forget, this was also the era when many teams changed their road unis from gray to powder blue, creating yet another solid-color trope.

All these trends had played themselves out by the end of the 1980s. The fact that colored pants look so bizarre now is a measure of how they've largely been purged from the game's collective memory, as if they were just a bad dream. Uni Watch prefers to think of them as a useful reality check—a reminder that tradition is a relative concept. So the next time you catch yourself carping about the latest solid-colored alternate jersey, keep in mind that things could get—and, indeed, have already been—a lot worse.

Got a question or suggestion for Uni Watch? Send it here.

Paul Lukas writes about food, travel, and consumer culture for a variety of publications.

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