Episode 111: Masters of the Uni-verse

Uniforms matter. When it comes to sports, they might be the only thing to which we’re actually loyal. Jerry Seinfeld may have said it best:

Rooting for Laundry from Melel Media on Vimeo.

Sports uniforms are packaging. But unlike any other packaging, if the product inside changes or degrades we remain loyal.  Players come and go, but change the uniform, and you’ll hear about it.

There are very few ways for players to put their own personal style into their uniforms. In baseball, in the face of huge opposition from curved-brim loyalists, some players take the bold stance of wearing a straight brim, like George Sherrill who is nick-named “The Brim Reaper” for his flat-brimmed style.

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Photo by Keith Allison 

If you’re a traditionalist, and also inept, you can use this contraption to get the perfect curve.  Whether curved or straight, the brim has also become a space where players can express themselves with semi-secret messages.

But for people who really geek out about baseball uniforms (like Paul Lukas from Uni Watch) the space below the knee may be the most interesting.  It is here that players have the most choices, can make the biggest statement, and be, in the words of Lukas, masters of their own “uni-verse.”

Most players today choose to wear their pants long (like George Sherrill is doing, pictured above), but if you truly want to honor baseball’s hosiery heritage, you should wear your pants up over your calves and a sharp pair of stirrups.

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A stirrup is like a sock, but one that loops underneath the arch of the foot. A century ago, baseball pants were knickers, and what you wear with knickers are stockings. But in the early days, baseball was a pretty rough and tumble game. Players were liable to get cut up by opponents’ spiked shoes—and if you got spiked in the shins and started bleeding, the dye from your stockings could get in the wound and, it was feared, you could get blood poisoning.  (These were the days before colorfast dyes.)

So someone had the idea that if you wore a white undersock (a “sanitary,” or “sani” for short), you could stirrup on top—thus allowing you to protect your blood while also repping your team colors. The feet are cut out of the stirrup so as to keep from having to cram two pairs of socks into your cleats.

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(Team 99pi’s home, away, and alternate uniform stirrups. Created from socksrock.com)

Originally, the foot opening in the stirrup was tiny, just enough for your foot to fit through. But almost immediately players began pulling it up and stretching it higher, thus exposing more and more of the sanitary undersock. By the 1960s, players like Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles were actually cutting the bottom loop of the stirrup and adding more fabric to it, so that the stirrups could be pulled even higher than manufacturer had intended.

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(Courtesy of 5toolcollector)

Pitcher Josh Outman (shown here in a Rockies uniform, but currently with the Cleveland Indians) carries on the tradition of sporting stripe-y stirrups.

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(Photo by Keith Allison) Josh Outman

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Jim Thome (above) didn’t go for long stirrups, but he remains one of baseball’s all-time best “blousers.”

According to Paul Lukas, the greatest baseball uniform of all time is the 60s era St. Louis Cardinals.

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Paul Lukas of Uni Watch (and creator of the zine Beer Frame, to which 99% Invisible owes a considerable debt) talked with Jesse Thorn, host of the NPR show Bullseye, owner of Maximumfun.org, and life-long SF Giants fans, even though it’s really hard to wear the cap out because black and orange doesn’t go with anything.

32 thoughts on “Masters of the Uni-verse

  1. What could be better than 99pi and stirrups together on the same day? I never played a game without sanis and stirrups, and would never dream of not perfectly, ritualistically aligning the bottom of my pant legs, held snugly in place by knee pads. What I wouldn’t give for just one more day weariring stirrups…makes me at the very least want to start wearing knickers to work!

  2. I’m a pretty avid runner and have had some achilles problems over the years. I’ve worn a brace that had the purpose of keeping the achilles held high, pulling the foot upward similar to a stirrup.

    Any way stirrups also had a similar purpose in baseball over the years? Achilles Support?

  3. Sorry, this is the first episode of 99 I couldnt get through.
    Next time I hope they can find a subject with more relevance than the type of socks worn in baseball.

    • You write a snarky comment the first time a blog doesnt cater to your interests? What a self-important prick.

    • @kjell: Apparently no one has ever taught you how to read magazines, newspapers, or blogs. So here’s an important clue for you: When you encounter an article on something that doesn’t interest you, skip over it and move on to something that does.

      No one cares that you don’t find this topic interesting.

    • I actually really enjoyed this episode. I like it when 99PI veers from what would be considered “relevant” and I look forward to more episodes like this. Bummer you didn’t enjoy it though; as the saying goes, “they can’t all be winners.”

      – All time greatest blouser

  4. I’ve been a youth baseball coach for years and for the first time in over a decade of coaching, my players requested stirrups. We’re wearing them with pride, garnering admiration, and bringing them back!

    • Very glad to hear this! I hate the baggy, draggy pants look sported by so many pro players. Bring back the snazzy stirrup!

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  6. I loved this piece, and I’m not even a baseball fan.

    It occurs to me that you could do any number of follow-ups about uniforms. Why do some professions wear uniforms (train conductor, chefs) and others don’t? Did you know there is an annual award for best dressed public safety uniform?

  7. I’ve never thought so much about baseball pants/socks, but now it’s all I’m going to be able to see! I love it. If everyone dressed like the 1960s Cardinals, I’d watch way more baseball games.

  8. I wouldn’t say we root for the clothes but rather we cheer for the city, state or region of which those clothes represent.

    • Exactly, we root for our hometown or the city we consider home. Regardless of the clothing or the players. But I see how they tried to tie it in to theme of the episode.

  9. The blood poisoning angle seems like hooey. At the time the baseball uniform developed laundry was a more arduous task. Many fashion items, like removable shirt collars, were developed to minimize laundry. The collars would be swapped out daily but the shirt could be worn multiple times. Stirrups are the same thing. The sanitary sock would be replaced daily but the stirrups would not need daily wash.

  10. The issue of asserting subtle individuality reminds me of my wife’s reminiscences of Catholic school. In a world of uniform polyester blend skirts, subtle things, the silver cross you wear on you neck, the kind of shoes you wear, etc. etc. really matter.

  11. Loyalty to uniforms? What about the A’s? The dominant team in Philly. Then Connie Mack sold off the best players and kept the uniforms. Fans switched their loyalty to the Phillies and the A’s ended up leaving.

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  13. Please can you stop the website automatically looping over the playlist. I really like the programme, but I don’t want to hear it multiple times or have to manually stop it playing after the episode ends. I think this can be done by changing (lines 909-912):

    to have ‘repeat’:0

    • I guess the post parser didn’t like the fact that I quoted some javascript. The relevant line had:

      type=”text/javascript” src=”http://99percentinvisible.org/wp-content/themes/ninety-nine/SCM/script.js”
      data-config=”{‘skin’:’skins/black/skin.css’,’volume’:50,’autoplay’:true,’shuffle’:false,’repeat’:1,’placement’:’bottom’,’showplaylist’:false}”

  14. thanks for the bit of history. I played high school baseball late in the 60′s and have longed for major league players to discover the tradition of the sanitary sock with a stirrup. It looks so right yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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  17. The suggested thought experiment about a massive trade of all players from one team to another was very interesting. It made me realize that most fans aren’t rooting for their team because of talent but rather because of tribalism. They are being loyal to their own cohort, i.e. themselves.
    So its about the fans – not the actual team.

  18. I have always appreciated baseball for these small details as well. “All time best blousers” one of the funniest thing I have ever heard.

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