Masters of the Uni-verse

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

When it come to sports, the uniforms matter a lot. Jerry Seinfeld famously said–

Jerry Seinfeld: Although team loyalty is a kind of hard thing to justify in the end. I love the Giants, but when you think about it, who are the Giants? You know what I mean, you know what I mean? It’s different guys, every year it’s different guys, right? Teams will move from city to city.

Roman: The players come and go, they get traded, they retire, they leave via free agency. But you keep rooting for those colors and that logo and that uniform.

Jerry: You’re rooting for clothes when you get right down to it. It’s the same outfits, it’s the same. I’m rooting for an outfit, that’s what it’s come down to. I want my team’s clothes to beat the clothes from the other city. That’s not so bad either, there’s nothing really wrong with that. It’s laundry, we’re rooting and screaming about laundry here.

Roman: And the measure of this according to Paul Lucas, the creator of Uniwatch, a website devoted to the obsessive study of athletics aesthetics, is this.

Paul Lucas: I’m a passionate New York Mets fan and I really, really hate the New York Yankees. But if the entire Mets team, 25 guys, is traded even up for the entire Yankee’s team, 25 guys, today, who do I root for tomorrow? And to me the answer is obvious, it’s a no brainer, I root for whoever is wearing the Mets uniform, no matter who it is. Even if it’s a bunch of guys who were wearing the Yankees uniform the day before.

Roman: So the identities of the players are almost irrelevant. What we root for is the uniform.

Paul: And that is an unusually strong form of brand loyalty. Because, if I like say, a certain brand of cereal, what’s that like? Cheerios. Well, I identify with the box and the logo and the colors and all that, the package design. But I also presumably like the product, and if I find that the quality of the product has changed, if it doesn’t taste good anymore or if some aspect of it…. If it doesn’t stay crunchy in milk, or whatever, I may give it one or two more tries, based on my brand loyalty, but eventually I will leave that brand, I will abandon it if I find that the quality is no longer there. But in sports, the content of the product and the quality of that content, meaning the players, is changing all the time. You can be really good one year, really bad the next year, your roster can turn over. So the content of the product is constantly in flux, but we stay loyal to whoever is wearing that uniform. And that is an unusually….to my mind it’s a unique form of brand loyalty, there is nothing else like it, in our consumer landscape.

Roman: Like Paul Lucas, my friend Jesse Thorne also obsesses over baseball uniforms, although he didn’t make a career out of it, he has another job.

Jesse Thorne: I’m Jesse Thorne, I’m the owner of maximumfun.org and host of the NPR show Bullseye.

Roman: There are certain things about a uniform that serve a purpose by being uniform. They help the players identify each other, they help us rally behind our team, they give us something cool to buy. But there are certain things on a uniform that aren’t uniform. Things that a player can choose.

Paul: And the number of things that a player can choose are very, very small. I mean it was a big controversy when I was a kid when Ken Griffey Jr. shagged balls in the outfield during batting practice with his baseball hat on backwards. It’s a big controversy now when a baseball player wears his cap brim totally flat, in what you might call the hip-hop style.

Jesse: As opposed to curved kind of like– Is that what you mean?

Paul: Yeah. Well, I mean they literally make a device that you can buy at the sporting good store, or order via mail order, that will give you quote on quote “The perfect curve to your brim”. And I remember as a little leaguer obsessing over getting the brim of my hat to curve exactly right, and I was not the only one.

Roman: We had Jesse Thorne talk with Paul Lucas of Uniwatch, and he discovered that Paul also zeroes in on the subtle expressions of individuality on a baseball player’s uniform.

Paul: I’m always very alert for any glimpse of the underside of a player’s cap brim. Because over the years the color of that element– It’s called the underbrim, or the undervisor, has changed. When I was a kid they were green, then they changed to grey for most teams, and now they are mostly black. And some players will write something on the underbrim. Fewer players do it now, now that they’re black, because you have to use like a white or a silver sharpie. Back when they were grey, players could just use any old pen, and players would write unusual things there. Inspirational messages, or the names of their children or whatever the case might be. And that always to me was an interesting sort of stealth area of the uniform world, or the uni-verse as I like to call it.

[Laughter]

Paul: You like that huh?

Jesse: Is there continuity in the uni-verse?

Roman: But when you get two baseball uniform aficionados, like Paul and Jesse together in conversation, there is one area of the baseball uniform that they truly geek out about: The intersection, between the pant leg and the sock.

Paul: Basically the whole area below the knee, and it’s the least legislated, least regulated and really least uniform part of the uniform.

Roman: Even though baseball teams have been historically named after the color of their socks, there is no rule governing the length of the pants or whether or not you will actually see those socks.

Paul: And that has really changed in the last generation, and it’s changed particularly a lot over in the last century or so. Early baseball uniforms had essentially knickers, and what do you wear with knickers? You wear stockings, and that’s what early baseball uniforms were. And over the course of the 20th century, those knickers started getting longer and longer, and they started drooping a little lower and a little lower and they went to mid-calf and then lower calf and then a little lower. And now we have so many of the players who wear their pants all the way down to their shoe tops, like footy pajamas. And then you have a handful of players, like say Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki, who like to hike their pants up high, so they are a minority but there’s a faction of players who do that. But there is no uniformity to it, and I think it’s a shame or even a tragedy that we’ve got these players who wear the pants all the way down to the shoe tops. Because, when you cover up the socks, you’re basically dishonoring baseball’s hosiery heritage.

Roman: So let’s break it down.

Jesse: Today baseball pants are stretchy polyester, they used to be wool flannel. So the pants that they have now, you can wear them kind of tight or loose.

Roman: And you can wear your pants at a variety of different lengths.

Jesse: So they can go down all the way to the top of your shoes, and in fact some players have gone so far as to have a strap that goes underneath their shoes, to keep from showing any sock at all. You can wear your pants up, sort of at the bottom of your calves, which shows a little bit of sock. That’s probably what most players do. And they just kind of let them set there. You can wear your pants up all the way over your calves, at the top of your calves, like they were sporting pants from the early part of the 20th century, like they were breeks or plus 2’s or plus 4’s.

Roman: And if you wear your pants in that style, with the bottoms all the way up to your knees.

Jesse: You can either wear solid colored socks, you can wear socks with a stripe up the side, that’s meant to simulate a stirrup sock, or you can wear actual stirrup socks.

Roman: Of these choices, stirrup socks are the ultimate in baseball hosiery for the die hard, old school fans. If you need help picturing a stirrup, they’re basically two layers of sock, there is a bottom layer that’s a normal old sock, but there’s also an exterior sock that’s a different colour. But the bottom of the sock, is just a strap that goes underneath the arch of the player’s foot.

Paul: The idea behind stirrups goes back about a century. Baseball pants used to be just knickers and you would wear stockings with them, but in the early days of baseball– Baseball was a pretty rough and tumble game, players would often get spiked and there were some players, like the great Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, who would famously sharpen their spikes, so when they slid into second or third base they would try to cut up the infielder. And if you got spiked in the shin, you’d get cut in your stockings. And the fabric dyes in those days were not color fast, so if you got spiked, dye from your stockings could get in the wound and you could get blood poisoning, or so was the thinking. I don’t know if there are any documented cases of players who actually got blood poisoning. And so someone got the idea, and we don’t know who, some great hero who deserves a statue– statue to the great unknown stirrups innovator, that if you wore an under sock, an extra layer of sock, you would have an extra layer of protection, a sanitary layer of protection. And so this under sock became known as a sanitary or a pair of such socks became known as sanitaries or sannies. And then the over stocking– well, they didn’t want you to have to wear the stocking over the under sock, because now you’d be wearing two pairs of socks and your shoes wouldn’t fit anymore, and so they decided to cut out the foot area of the over stocking and create this little stir up opening, and that’s how baseball stirrups were born. And originally, that opening was tiny, it was just enough for you foot to fit through, and almost immediately players begun pulling it and stretching it higher. And so more and more of an opening appeared and that exposed more and more of the sanitary under sock, which was usually white. So you started having this sort of interplay of color, of the ever widening opening of the colored stir up and the white under sock. And by the 1960’s there were players like Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, who were actually cutting the bottom part of the stirrup, the part that looped under your foot, and adding more fabric to it, so they could pull their stirrups even higher, higher than the manufacturer had intended.

Roman: While stirrups may have had this functional origin, they currently lost that and they just became incorporated into the visual language of baseball.

Paul: And I think for many people, myself included, it’s what we think of when we think of the baseball player. It’s interesting to note that, in the pages of The New Yorker, the Weekly Magazine, they run a lot of cartoons that are baseball themed and their cartoonists almost invariably depict baseball players wearing stirrups. Even though most actual baseball players today do not wear stirrups.

Jesse: I played in kid’s baseball league and I remember how official seeming and functional stirrups seemed to be. Despite the fact that with contemporary sock technology they are rendered essentially functionless.

Roman: But it seems that the romance is gone by the time you get to the big leagues.

Jesse: Yeah. And in fact I’ve asked players, “Why do you wear your pants down?” And the answer I often get is, “It’s just so much less work.” If you leave your pants down to your shoe top, it’s lower maintenance essentially. You don’t have to worry about your socks staying up, you don’t have to worry that your stirrups are both sort of at the exact same height or level. You don’t have to keep looking and checking to make sure that they’re just so. Just like most of us don’t when we walk around with slacks or jeans or whatever with regular pants. If you wear your pants low, you don’t really have to worry about what’s going on underneath them and so it’s just easier, and I understand that.

Roman: If there’s a villain in the story of baseball hosiery, that role would be filled by George Hendrick.

Paul: Who played for the Cardinals and A’s and some other teams in the 70’s and 80’s, he’s now the first base coach of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Roman: He’s the one that’s most often credited or blamed, as the most influential player in the move towards long pants.

Paul: And he liked to wear his pants down toward his ankles, which by today’s standards it’s pretty tame, but by the standards of the year that he played in, was seen as radical. He showed very, very little of his socks or stirrups and some people thought it looked weird or it looked dumpy or didn’t look dignified or whatever. But there were other players who thought it looked different, and therefore innovative and therefore cool.

Jesse: What major league baseball player’s sock style do you most admire?

Paul: At this point, it’s pretty slim pickings, in terms of hosiery heroes nowadays, because there aren’t many players who wear stirrups to begin with and even fewer who wear stirrups the way I liked to see them, like the style I like. The best I would say is a pitcher named Josh Outman, which is a great name for baseball right? Outman, he’s a pitcher, he gets the players out, and he wears a real 1970’s style of stirrups that I love. A lot of other people don’t love it so much, but he’s number one as far as I’m concerned. Reed Johnson, who’s an outfielder, he wears stirrups in a not too shabby way. But the fact that I have to search my mental database to come up with 3 or 4 players, it’s just not that great in terms of stirrups. Now there are other players who do hike their pants up high and just wear solid color socks and do so pretty nicely. Curtis Granderson, man, he looks great in the uniform. Steven Strosberg, of the Washington Nationals, the young phenom pitcher, does something great call blousing. Which means, he doesn’t just hike his pants up, but he tucks under the cuff in a way where it just sort of blouses out a little bit at the point where he tucks it under. Instead of just bunching them up, the way Alex Rodriguez does for example. And that’s sort of a lost art, blousing. Jim Thome, who recently retired slugger, who played for many teams, great, great blouser, all time blouser. So there are lots of little elements here to appreciate.

Jesse: There is absolutely no doubt, that the final cut of this piece includes you saying “Jim Thome former slugger for the Cleveland Indians, great blouser, excellent, excellent. All time great blouser.”

[laughing]

Roman: Oh man. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Jesse Thorne with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman, Katie Mingle and me Roman Mars. Jessie Thorne is the host of the NPR program Bullseye, the best pop culture interview program around today, full stop. It is fantastic, if you want to learn about the good stuff in popular culture, TV, movies, books, music, video games, this is essential listening. Subscribe to Bullseye in iTunes or go to maximumfun.org. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced off the offices of Arc Sign. A group of architects who would never dishonour architecture’s hosiery heritage. Support for 99% Invisible is provided by our listeners, all of whom are world class blousers.

Comments (27)

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  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. Anne Irwin

    Always wondered why they were called “sanitary” socks. Thanks for solving that mystery.

  3. Bill

    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?

  4. kjell

    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.

    1. blue

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

    2. broccoliisgoodforyou

      @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.

    3. 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

  5. Coach K

    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!

    1. broccoliisgoodforyou

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

  6. kickstand

    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. Lindsay

    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. Eric

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

    1. 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. Jim OK

    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. Fred Leonard

    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.

  12. Cathy

    As a Red Sox fan, I do miss the emphasis on hosiery with most of the guys wearing long pants these days.

  13. Nick Kolpin

    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

    1. Nick Kolpin

      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.

  15. Alan Higbie

    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.

  16. lola-lola

    I’m quite nostalgic about that classic stirrup silhouette. Thanks for the fun facts…

  17. Nathan

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

  18. Frank

    I’m cheering for my city; if you swapped uniforms instead of players, I’d still root for my city.

  19. Andrea

    I can’t stop looking! I never took much notice other than the guys whose pants sagged… (Manny just being Manny..) I now look for the guys who wear socks and lo and behold, stirrrups! Pitcher Chris Archer of TB. Those are some comely looking calves.. ;)

  20. Jim

    The team/uniform swap thing got me thinking about the metaphysical thought experiment called The Ship of Theseus. The Theseus Paradox poses the question that if a ship over a very very long period of time had every single piece of itself replaced would it continue being the same ship. Additionally if you assembled another ship out of the replaced pieces wouldn’t that ship also be the Ship of Theseus?

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