Cheering For Laundry

Editor’s Note: Many thanks again to Daniel D. Covell. The cover image is of a crowd at a baseball game in the 1920’s.

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day (or “opening day,” depending on your relative degree of dedication to the National Pastime) is upon us once again, synching into in its slot in the annual American sports calendar right at the end of college basketball’s March Madness and right before that tradition unlike any other tees off in Augusta, Georgia. Hardcore baseball fans who are also denizens of the northern section of our country look to MLB’s spring training as both a signal that the sport they love is gearing up once again as well as the fact that the frosty grip of winter is nearing an end. In my home state of Maine, back when I was a ballplaying youth, the second half of that emotion was mostly false hope, as we knew that even though beginning in mid-February Major Leaguers worked their way into shape in the balmy climes of Florida and Arizona, we would be lucky to get outside to play by the third week in April. And even then, sunny, 70-degree weather wouldn’t arrive until Mother’s Day or so. This made my first Waterville High School baseball uniform, made of the same old-time wool flannel worn by our favorite Red Sox legends like Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky (who once ate dinner at our house after working a coaching clinic organized by my dad during his time as head baseball coach at Colby College), a benefit to protect against the early season damp and chill, but less desirable once the days finally got warmer.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld – a New York Mets fan, and an avid one by my reckoning – once famously observed that being a sports fan is like cheering for laundry, because over our many years of fandom we stick with our team as legions of players come and go. We root for whoever is wearing that uniform, thus Seinfeld’s laundry jest. And I would argue that in baseball, the laundry matters more than any other sport.

Warren Goldstein (baseball historian) noted that many early baseball teams, such as the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the 1860s, the first truly professional baseball team, got their names from their distinctive apparel (in the case of the Reds, long, red stockings highlighted by shortened “knickerbocker” pants) and that uniforms created a sense of apartness and defined who was a player and who was not. Think about that – baseball teams were given their identity because of the clothing they wore. No other sport comes close to that degree of connection to its apparel. A few college teams – including Ivy Style initiators Cornell, Dartmouth and Harvard – are known by the colors they favor, but precious few other pro sports teams can claim an identifying association with apparel. The closest one can come is the Brooklyn Nets, and they’re named for a piece of game equipment.

Fan affinity for uniforms was established many centuries prior, as the Roman historian Pliny the Younger noted in 109 C.E. that fans of chariot racers would cheer for the contestants whose clothing they liked best. “Such mighty charms,” wrote Pliny, “such wondrous powers reside in the color of a paltry tunic!” Today, licensed apparel – items made with the logos and marks of a sport property by a third party – are worn by a substantial number of fans at all sporting events across the country and the world. Why? The appeal is based on the notion that fans will purchase goods to draw them closer to their beloved organizations and athletes, and that these clothes will communicate the message of this connection to the world. Writer Bill Simmons describes the early days of buying player-specific licensed products this way: “Fans bought them because they wanted to dress like players on the team. Not only were we supporting our guys, but the player we chose became an expression of sorts.” In fact, if you go to a game today and wear what we Ivy Stylers might favor, such as a jacket and tie, you run the risk of being mistaken for team management. Such was the case for me last fall when, in similar dress (including a Tood Snyder Sutton Fit Albini 1976 linen tan, brown and light blue sport jacket), I attended a Chicago Bears – Los Angeles Chargers game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. As I made my way to the restroom during a time out, a concerned Chargers fan (wearing a replica version of their terrific power blue home jerseys), stopped me and said, “What are you doing up here? Shouldn’t you be on the field?” Confused, I responded, “What do you mean?” He replied: “You’re the team doctor right? They make you come up here to use the bathroom?” To be fair, he was probably into his tenth beer, but still. It brought me back to one of my proudest sports attendance moments, when a similarly blotto Mets fan at CitiField mistook me for Jon Hamm. If only, says my spouse.

Is wearing the jersey of your favorite team or player any different than what we Ivy Stylers do when we cite and emulate the habiliment of our favorites, be they Beau Brummel, Edward VIII, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Miles Davis, or John F. Kennedy? Given the brand- and revenue-generating power of licensed apparel, it’s amusing to learn that some teams bristled at sharing their marks with licensees because of the perceptions that such actions would cheapen their brand. George Weiss, general manager of the New York Yankees from 1948-1960 (and with the crosstown Mets from 1960-1966), recoiled at the notion of licensing. “Do you think I want every kid in this city walking around with a Yankees cap?” said Weiss (a Yale alumnus), evidently believing the widespread distribution of Yankees apparel would weaken the sense of elitism and exclusivity connected to the team’s brand and the all-hallowed Yankee Pinstripes.

I cite those ‘stripes with a wee bit of spleen, for as a life-long Boston Red Sox fan it’s hard to acknowledge that anything associated with the Bronx Bombers is in any way laudable. Indeed, the Yankees didn’t invent pinstripes (men’s suits have featured them since the early 19th century and the 1907 Chicago Cubs are acknowledged to be the first baseball team to wear them), but 27 World Series titles won through the efforts of a litany of Hall of Famers, the greatest of which is arguably former BoSox star Babe Ruth, give the Yankee’s pinstripes an undeniable power they can claim as their own. And while the Cubs used them first, and at recent count close to a dozen MLB teams wear some version of a pinstriped unform, no one ever is going to call them the Cubs Pinstripes, or the Mets Pinstripes, or the Minnesota Twins Pinstripes.

As good as the Yankee Pinstripes are, I admit begrudgingly, the greatest all-time baseball uniform was debuted by the Houston Astros in 1975. Todd Radom, author and expert on all things sport logo and uniform design, came of age in the 1970s like I did, in an era he likens to hitting the sports-aesthetic lottery, “the game’s most vibrant, colorful decade, with its smorgasbord of audacious and often garish uniforms. Bold graphics and sensationally showy colors were synthesized into some of sports history’s most memorable uniforms — a golden age of sports identity.” Radom has nominated as the ’75 Astros uniforms as “the greatest ugly sports uniform of all time” – although to me it’s anything but ugly, it is a revelation. “The pullover jerseys featured an alternating series of horizontal stripes,” describes Radom, “rendered in shades of orange, yellow and red, the word ‘Astros’ spelled out above in clean, unembellished sans serif letterforms. A Texas-size navy blue star, nine and one-eighth inches high and placed squarely against the left side of the players’ bellies, punctuated the look.” Many observers immediately panned the uniforms, which had been designed by the well-established McCann-Erickson advertising agency, comparing the garb to “a television test pattern,” “rainbow guts” or a “tequila sunrise.” In addition, the Astros opted to wear the same uniform home and away. “This made perfect sense,” concluded Radom, “as there was certainly no mistaking the Astros for any other team. Say what you will, the Astros looked like no other team, before or since – a singular, instantly recognizable identity … Let New York have its austere, pinstriped Yankees, the visual embodiment of old money and Wall Street — Houston represented the future.”

I loved the Astros uniform then and now, and back then my American Legion summer league team sported a shades-of-blue version of the Tequilla Sunrise (perhaps it should have been called “Kennebec Waterfall” in honor of the river that runs through town of Waterville, although at the time the Kennebec, lined with paper mills and clotted with trees sluicing toward them, was nothing close to blue). Others loved the look too. A nearby rival wore one in shades of green, and a former colleague who played on a softball team then had one in shades of brown. Recently, a few college programs like the University of Louisville have resurrected the look (theirs in hues of red). Nonetheless, that future the Astros uniform portended wasn’t what it used to be, as by the 1980s most of the teams that dipped their sartorial toes in or jumped in head-first into the new technicolor waters (think the Cleveland Indians [now Guardians], Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates), steadily retired those colorful looks for the staider and in many cases duller looks that had permeated previous decades.

If you are a baseball fan, you likely know where this piece is now going, and since media heavyweights such asthe New Yorker magazine and the New York Times have put in their two cents worth on it, so now should this site. I am of course writing about the recent controversy with the new uniforms worn by MLB players. It is not an issue with the colors or logos – no modern-day resurrection of the apotheosis Tequilla Sunrise – but rather, and of no less importance, the imbroglio has to do with the with the cut of the uniforms and the cloth used to make them. The biggest problem is that the pants are close to see-through. In summary, MLB signed a ten-year, $1 billion deal with Nike and Fanatics (which currently makes most of MLB’s replica licensed apparel products) to design and tp manufacture the unforms for all 30 teams, and, according to theNew York Times’s “Sunday Styles” section (not the sports page), the uniforms, “especially the pants, leave little to the imagination.” “Whenever I’m nervous public speaking I just pretend people in the audience are wearing Fanatics baseball pants,” an Internet wag posted.

While sheerness is a problem, current players also decry the fact that they can no longer have the uniforms tailored for their specific forms. Daniel Bard, the closer for the Colorado Rockies (a pinstripe team), who clocks in at 6’4” and 215 pounds, said that we he came into the league in 2009, the uniforms were far superior. “You could literally get it tailored to your body. They were pretty damn near perfect.” Bard told theTimes that “the current material is not as soft … They changed the names. They look funny – too small and too curved. The patches on the arms look like they’re ironed on.” When told the new uniforms were redesigned for performance reasons, Bard responded, “It’s not like shaving two or three ounces off a uniform is going to drastically change our performance. None of the players asked for this. We’re not Olympic sprinters.” In addition, as of this writing Fanatics had yet to get all teams their revised unforms, so teams were using uniforms from the previous season.

Times writer Eve Peyser correctly notes that “the uniform debacle is also indicative of how sportswear is changing to become more performance oriented, sometime at the expense of aesthetics and quality.” Todd Radom added that “the Nikes of the world have their proprietary stuff that they want to put out. It moves product.” That brought to mind the sage words of Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom dad Morty, played so ably by Barney Martin. A veteran of over three decades of selling raincoats (who can forget his signature invention, “the Executive,” the beltless raincoat), Morty worked for a time for Jerry’s friend Elaine at clothing catalog company J. Peterman, but got fired for telling Peterman that the cartoons and the stories in his catalog were not what would sell clothes. “Cheap fabric, and dim lighting. That’s how you move merchandise,” Morty stated authoritatively. Nike had part one right, but forgot that baseball is played in daylight or under the glow of hundreds of thousands of lumens. And of course there was the sitcom’s episode when George Costanza, while employed for the Yankees, made the team switch to cotton uniforms for comfort and coolness. That worked well for one game, but after the unforms were laundered, they shrunk and were too tight for the Yankees to perform. The MLB design folks at Nike and Fanatics clearly need to watch more reruns on Comedy Central. If they had, all this could have been avoided.

Bard’s point about tailoring says as much about the power of fit as well as the patent charm and allure of the game. Unlike the NBA and the NFL, where size, strength and speed are undeniable prerequisites, baseball can be played and played well by players of a far greater range of sizes and shapes. Aaron Judge, star Yanks outfielder, is an NBA/NFL-sized 6’8”, 280, and would look incredibly average in the NBA. Jose Altuve, Astros second baseman, is 5’6” (and that is probably what we call “program height,” where players exaggerate their stature for publicized rosters to appear bigger), and would incredibly average as an NBA ball boy. Of course, the hardcore fans reading this know that Eddie Gaedel, all 3’7” of him, was sent up to pinch hit by St. Louis Browns owner/showman Bill Veeck in 1951. Batting out of a pronounced crouch and wearing the number “1/8” on the uniform that belonged to the team’s batboy, Gaedel drew a four-pitch walk and was replaced by a pinch hitter, giving him a lifetime on-base percentage of 1.000. Legend has it that Veeck told Gaedel he had a sniper of the roof of the stadium poised to shoot Gaedel should he actually swing at a pitch.

Some leagues, the NFL especially, take a totalitarian view on what players can and can’t wear on the field, and fine them thousands of dollars for violations. Would that they demanded their coaches to dress professionally like they did decades ago. The Yankees – in a vestige to the martial managerial style of former owner George Steinbrenner – proclaim that players can’t have long hair or beards, as if having such a hirsute approach to grooming would cost them the pennant. All this brings me back to Daniel Bard’s observations, as they speak to something Ivy Stylers know well. Although some of the time-honored clothing dictates such as the “Rule of Three” (which proclaimed that one couldn’t wear a patterned shirt, pattered tie and pattered jacket together, but wearing two of these patterned garments at the same time was acceptable), and that one could wear white only between Memorial Day and Labor Day (that’s one I still find hard to break) have been mostly retired, how clothes fit and the materials from which they are made are always important. We Ivy Stylers will put away our Harris tweeds and wide wale cords soon, and dig out our madras and seersucker soon; maybe they already have down south. Some of us prefer slimmer fits, others that that are less form-fitting. Much like the variation of body sizes and shapes, baseball players have the freedom to wear their pants long or short, baggy or form-fitting. Either is acceptable, because professional athletes of all kinds will often cite this mindset: Look good, feel good, play good. We can all relate to that. Batter up!

  • Daniel D. Covell

7 Comments on "Cheering For Laundry"

  1. Hardbopper | April 3, 2024 at 1:48 pm |

    Remember stirrups and short knickerbockers? I suppose it was the 90s when they stopped wearing those and started wearing baggy pants, except for a few base stealers. That’s when it became apparent to me that it must be the players option. I was never a speedster, but baggy pants really slowed me down. Drapey off the field, sleek on the field, for form and function, I say.

    I remember living in a state with long winters, when the Sports Illustrated Spring Training issue would come out. Glory! I could just smell the freshly mowed grass and the leather, feel the warm sun, and taste the chawin’ terbacci.

  2. James G. Dalessandro | April 3, 2024 at 3:37 pm |

    There is one team in a different sport that wearing the “laundry” is important. From the helmet stripe, sans logo, to the color of the uniform. The Cleveland Browns.

  3. Ivy clothing is inherently sporty: unpadded, unstructured, comfortable. Zero fusing, hand stitching. The narrow, sloping shoulder (point to point), undarted front, and loose-and-straight fitting pants (I prefer creaseless) render a relaxed, sporty vibe — complimented by other sporty totems: striped or motif’d ties, creased button downed oxfords, and, of course, well-worn slip-on moccasin’d “loafers.” Lest we forget, the origins of tweed and wool challis are country/field sport. The bits of Ivy that borrow from British military and equestrian culture, like cavalry twill and whipcord, are rustic. Again, sporty.

  4. Nice writing.

  5. Richard E. Press | April 4, 2024 at 7:38 am |

    Mr. Covell’s grand slam hit it out of the park ⚾️

  6. Yankee story:
    When Mike Burke was running the Yankees for CBS – 1966 to 1973 – he thought the personal appearance of the players when the team was on the road was unacceptable.
    He wanted the players to wear blue blazers, grey topical worsted trousers, button down oxford shirts.
    He had Chipp go down to Spring training, take all the players measurements and make the clothing.
    The clothing was made and delivered.
    The players refused to wear them !

  7. James H. Grant | April 5, 2024 at 10:21 am |

    Daniel: Thanks for this interesting piece on baseball and other related topics. I saw my first major league baseball game sixty-eight years ago – you know, back when the players wore uniforms. All the players on one team wore identical clothing – the same cap, shirts, pants, belts and stirrup socks. Even their shoes were the same color – black. The team projected the same reasonably clean-cut image, and the players were mostly pretty good role models for youngsters. Although I have heard that Major League Baseball has some sort of dress code today, it is obviously not being enforced. Ballplayers in the 21st century wear an astonishing array of protective gear (batting gloves, sliding mitts, wrist bands, elbow pads, ankle protectors, compression sleeves, braces, and custom helmets. (If these innovations are designed specifically to protect the player from injury, that’s okay, but they should at least be in the team’s standard colors.) Modern players wear all sorts of shoes in an array of hues not remotely related to their team’s traditional uniform colors. Some players flaunt their individuality by wearing cumbersome chains with amulets, medallions, baubles, bangles, earrings, and other jewelry. Some defile their bodies with grotesque tattoos, scruffy beards, mullets, and shoulder length hair, as if looking like a caveman will help them play better between the chalk lines. Many players refuse to button the top buttons on their shirts. (If the button-up shirts are uncomfortable, why not design V-neck pull-over jerseys which allow more freedom of movement?) All these distractions say one thing to me: “Hey, don’t look at my teammates, look at me!” Baseball, football, basketball – most of the sports we played as children and enjoy watching as adults are team sports. The members of a team should dress like their teammates and elevate rather than diminish the team they represent. Teams have one purpose and goal – to win as a team. The U.S. Marines call that esprit de corps. There is a lot to be said for individual expression – that is what Ivy Style is all about. But not when you are a teammate wearing a uniform. Just my opinion.

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