Whenever I come out with a negative assessment of a new uniform development — the rise of uni ad patches, the drooping of baseball pants, Nike’s latest Pro Color Connect City Rush Combat thingie, or whatever — there are invariably a few people who respond by telling me, “You’re just a traditionalist who can’t deal with change! You hate anything new or different!”
My usual response is, “Actually, I’m a classicist, not a traditionalist. A traditionalist says, ‘Don’t ever change anything because change is always bad,’ but a classicist says, ‘If you can improve something, go for it! But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That’s me.”
That usually gets me out of the crossfire. But lately I’ve been asking myself if I really do just hate change. As a thought experiment, I decided it would be interesting to try to imagine, as honestly as possible, how I would have responded to some major developments in uniform history if I had been writing Uni Watch at the time, just to see how change-resistant I would have been, and then see how those responses compare to what I think of those same uni developments now. For example, what would I have thought of the advent of baseball uni numbers if I had been writing about uniforms in the late 1920s? And how does that compare to what I think of uni numbers now? I set up a bunch of hypotheticals like that.
Before we get started, here’s one caveat: Some of the uni-verse’s biggest changes over the years have involved player safety. Consider, for example, the rise of football facemasks, hockey goalie masks, and baseball batting helmets — those all had profound effects on the aesthetics of their respective sports, but their primary motivation was safety-driven, not aesthetic. I’d like to think I would never oppose a safety innovation, regardless of its aesthetic implications, so I’m not going to plug those developments into our thought experiment. I'm going to stick to non-safety-related innovations.
Okay, ready? Here we go.
The history: After a few other teams tinkered with uni numbers, the Yankees and Cleveland made rear-jersey uni numbers a standard thing in 1929.
What Paul would have said: I’m fairly sure I would have opposed the use of uni numbers on the grounds that it was unnecessary. I can imagine myself thinking (or writing) something like this: “The P.A. announcer tells you who’s batting — that’s all you need, right? Radio broadcasters and newspaper reporters have no apparent trouble keeping track of the players, so why do fans need numbers?”
Once players started choosing their own numbers based on superstitions or personal storylines, I probably would have viewed that as a “Look at me!” thing. “Play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the number on the back,” I would have said.
What Paul says now: Obviously, my anti-numbers stance would have been wrong, as numerology has turned out to be such a fun part of the uni-verse. Plus numbers are helpful for identifying the players!
What Paul would have said: No question, I would have hated this. “Any real fan can tell the players by their numbers,” I would have said. “This just caters to non-fans and creates a cult of personal celebrity that detracts from the team.” When the NFL added NOBs in 1970, I probably would have viewed that as the beginning of the end for uniform integrity.
What Paul says now: On the one hand, I do think that jerseys tend to look cleaner without NOBs. I love that the Yankees have resisted using them (I wish a few other pro teams would go that route — not just in baseball but in any sport), and the intermittent lack of NOBs makes college sports visually interesting. On the other hand, NOBs have become their own little niche within the uni-verse, with lots of fun sub-niches — vertical vs. radial arching, nameplate typos, nicknames, and a lot more. So I think I would have been wrong to be 100% opposed to NOBs, but I do wish they weren’t as prevalent as they’ve become.
What Paul would have said: Honestly, I’m unsure. I really hope I would have embraced Gehrke’s ram horns, although I have to admit it’s possible I would have viewed them as too gimmicky. Ditto for the rise of team logos on the sides of the shells. “If you’re watching the game, you already know who’s playing. Why clutter up the helmet with a logo? Less is more!”
What Paul says now: The logo-emblazoned football helmet is one of the uni-verse’s unquestionable triumphs (and, for that matter, a landmark of 20th-century commercial design), so opposing it would have been wrongheaded. But much like the situation with NOBs, I’m glad we still have one NFL team with logo-free helmets, along with a few more in the NCAA — a nice reminder of the transition from then to now.
The history: After it turned out that real grass wouldn’t grow in the Astrodome, the Astros and Oilers began playing on artificial turf in 1966. Lots of outdoor stadiums soon followed.
What Paul would have said: Although I was too young to witness the invention of phony grass, I grew up during Astroturf’s 1970s heyday, and I always hated the look of it. If I’d been born a decade or so earlier, I’m sure I would have been dismayed by its introduction. (For that matter, I probably would have said, “If real grass can’t grow in a dome, that just tells you they shouldn’t be playing indoors to begin with.”)
What Paul says now: Plastic grass sucked then and still sucks now. Interestingly, MLB owners eventually agreed with that position, as natural grass replaced most of the original Astroturf fields by the turn of the century (and grass also made a comeback, although not to the same extent, in the NFL) — a good reminder that sometimes the pendulum of “innovation” swings back toward the tried and true.
The history: After purchasing the Kansas City A’s in 1963, owner Charlie Finley made a radical change to the team’s colors. The club’s new uniforms weren’t just a departure for the A’s — they were unlike anything previously seen on a baseball field.
What Paul would have said: This one’s a little tricky, because I love green and gold. But it’s not hard to imagine me saying, “Feels more like a costume than a uniform. Also feels like an egotistical owner trying to put his own stamp on the shiny new toy he just bought for himself. Imagine what it must be like to be a KC fan who’s spent the past decade rooting for navy and red, and now all of a sudden you’re expected to root for these Technicolor hues. Green/gold is a great color combo, but not on a baseball uniform, and especially not on this uniform.”
What Paul says now: The A’s colors have stood the test of time and are among my favorite color combos in all of sports. Does that negate the fact that Finley truly was on an ego trip, and that rejiggering the team’s colors no doubt truly was jarring to the team’s fan base? Hmmm.
So the short version is that I probably would have been opposed to a lot of the uni-verse’s most important changes during the past century or so — often for reasons that now seem silly or even ridiculous. Maybe I really am just opposed to change!
But I think the full story is more nuanced than that. There have been plenty of uni developments during my life that I’ve liked just fine. For example:
• I was a fan of Cooperalls when they hit the NHL back in the early 1980s (and am still sort of amazed that nobody has come up with a modern version of them since then).
• When the White Sox created the idea of throwback uniforms in 1990, I loved it. (I suppose you could say I don’t deserve credit for going along with this, since it was more about rolling back change, but it was still a major shift in how the uni-verse operated.)
• I think the NFL’s new numbering rules are fun. Yes, it’s a little bit of a mind-fuck to see, say, a linebacker wearing No. 7, but that’s part of what I like about it — there’s a certain novelty to it, at least until we get used to it. (I feel the same way about MLB pitchers with single-digit numbers.)
• Not uni-related but still a milestone moment in athletics aesthetics: When NFL telecasts began featuring the yellow first-down stripe in the late 1990s, I loved it. (Seriously, how did we ever survive without it?)
And so on. Now, have I also opposed all sorts of uni-related changes over the years? Yes. So how do we summarize this thought exercise? How about like this:
1. I think it would be fair to say that I apply a pretty strong degree of scrutiny or skepticism to uni-related developments — that’s part of the classicist mindset. For the most part, I’m fine with that. But as my series of “What Paul would have said” hypotheticals shows, it may sometimes lead me to oppose things that turn out to be just fine.
2. Historical context matters. If you spent the first 30 years of your life watching sports without NOBs, then opposing NOBs might have made sense in 1960. Six decades later, it seems silly. (Does this mean it will one day seem silly to oppose ads on uniforms? I hope not.)
3. It’s worth noting that soooo many of today’s new uni designs are really just excuses to sell more retail product. I think that has a lot to do with why I end up giving the thumbs-down to so many new designs these days — they feel like retail designs that happen to be worn on-field, not the other way around. Whatever I might have thought about the introduction of baseball numbers, football helmet logos, or NOBs, they were created solely to enhance the look of the game, not to sell retail product. I think that’s why so many of those older innovations have stood the test of time, while many contemporary ones may not.
In any case, this has been an interesting thought experiment. I encourage you to try it yourself!
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.