The Pirates' great uniform revolution
When you think of the Pittsburgh Pirates' uniforms from the 1970s, you naturally think of the team's mix-and-match bumblebee set and those pillbox caps adorned with Stargell stars, all of which were groundbreaking in their own way.
But the Pirates rarely receive credit for another 1970s innovation, one that completely remade baseball's visual landscape, and whose 40th anniversary passed earlier this month with nary a mention.
The date was July 16, 1970. If you look up that date in one of those "This Day in Baseball History" listings, you'll see that it's the day Three Rivers Stadium opened. What the historical databases don't mention is that it's also the day the Pirates unveiled a new uniform set that changed the face of baseball.
At first glance, it seems that the Pirates just switched from vests to sleeves, changed their cap color and tweaked their stirrup stripes. But the changes were far more revolutionary than that. How revolutionary? Let's count the ways:
• It was the first time an MLB team had worn a button-less pullover jersey (a style that would become the sport's dominant look over the next 20 years).
• It was also the first time an MLB team had worn pants with an elasticized waistband instead of a belt (ditto).
MEN OF THE CLOTH
Contrary to what you often hear, MLB teams were not wearing wool flannels just prior to the Pirates' introduction of stretch-knits. Wool had been phased out in the early 1960s; the flannels being worn later in that decade were a cotton-poly blend. They were heavier than the stretch-knits that replaced them but nowhere near as heavy or hot as the wool versions. These mid- and late-'60s fabrics are also now considered by many, including Uni Watch, as the apex of baseball uni design.
Another misconception: The Pirates' 1970 uniforms are sometimes referred to as "the first polyester double-knits." But they were made of cotton and nylon, not polyester. And although they were knits, they weren't truly double-knits. Confused? For more info on baseball uniform fabrics, look here.
• Yet another first: The uniforms were made from a cotton-nylon knit fabric that was lighter and cooler than the woven flannels that were the standard at the time. (To put this in perspective, a woven fabric is what's used for, say, a pair of jeans or a suit jacket. A knit fabric would be used for a polo shirt -- it has much more "give.") The nylon provided a stretch-to-fit element that was unlike anything ever seen before on a big league diamond. Technically speaking, they weren't double-knits, but they nonetheless represent the starting point for what we now think of as baseball's double-knit era.
Media reaction to the new design was more amused than impressed. Sports Illustrated said the form-fitting uniforms "do not flatter a fat man" and quoted a player saying the pants were "like taking off a girdle." The Sporting News said the pants "resemble ski slacks," and the Pittsburgh Press called them "white long johns."
Despite this chirping from the peanut gallery, the Pirates' uni quickly became the standard for other big league teams. By the start of the 1973 season -- only two and a half years after the Pirates unveiled their new design -- all 24 MLB clubs had switched to stretch-knit uniforms, 14 had adopted pullover jerseys and 16 were wearing beltless pants. And the numbers kept growing from there: Over the next 20 years, every MLB team except the Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers, and Expos went with a pullover at some point, and those same four teams plus the Mets are the only ones that never went beltless. And since MLB teams routinely recycle their uniforms among their minor league affiliates, the pullover and beltless styles became ubiquitous down on the farm, too.
But the revolution the Pirates started went far beyond issues like belts and buttons. The new synthetic fabrics allowed for previously unthinkable color combinations. And because the fabric stretched to fit, players began wearing their uniforms as skin-tight as possible, creating a sleek silhouette that defined the sport's look for a generation. And it all started on that evening 40 years ago in Pittsburgh.
But why did the Pirates change uniforms in the middle of a season? Who designed their uniforms? Did the pullover, beltless and stretch-knit concepts originate with the Pirates, or did they come from Rawlings, the team's uniform outfitter at the time?
Extensive Uni Watch research has turned up the answers to most of these questions. Let's go one at a time:
1. Why the mid-season uni switcheroo? The new uniforms were timed to coincide with the opening of Three Rivers Stadium -- which, like so many ballparks, was not completed on schedule. When the stadium's opening was delayed until after the 1970 All-Star break, so was the unveiling of the new threads.
Uni Watch reader Jerry Wolper, then 12 years old, was there that night at Three Rivers. "The Pirates came out for BP in their old uniforms ," he says. "We didn't see the new ones until Dock [Ellis] went out to warm up. I absolutely noticed the difference. It was exciting, because it was all part of this 'moving into the future' thing. In 1970 we were all a lot more optimistic."
2. Who was the uni designer? As Three Rivers was being built, much of the signage and other visuals in the ballpark were being handled by a now-defunct Pittsburgh industrial design firm called Peter Muller-Munk Associates. One of their designers, Denis Johnson, convinced Pirates GM Joe Brown to let him redesign the team's uniforms to go along with the new stadium.
"I did some concept sketches, and we had Rawlings send us some blank uniform shells," recalls Johnson, now retired and living in Florida. "I got some black felt and gold felt and pinned things to the shells. Then we went out to Forbes Field with two or three different concepts we had worked up with the felt and all, and we sent this guy out to center field to see how it looked. That's how we ended up picking the weight of the stripes and the piping."
3. Who came up with the pullover and beltless concepts? If you look again at Johnson's concept sketch, you'll see he drew a button-front jersey, not a pullover. And the pants don't have a standard belt, but they don't have the Pirates' three-stripe elastic waistband either.
STEEL CITY DESIGNER EXTRAORDINAIRE
Denis Johnson contributed a lot more to the Pittsburgh sports scene than just the Pirates' 1970 uniforms. Among his other credits:
• Johnson painted the canvas panels for this mural, which hung in the Pirates' corporate offices at Three Rivers Stadium. It was based on the uniform he'd designed for the team, with Vernon Law's uni number.
• For the Steelers' offices, Johns designed this tapestry, showing a stylized diagram of a football play. "I just did a general sketch and showed it to [Steelers owner] Dan Rooney," he recalls. "He said, 'Let's make it a significant play,' but at that point there really hadn't been many significant plays in Steelers history." They eventually chose a play showing Elbie Nickel catching a game-winning touchdown pass against the Eagles in 1954. Johnson did the drawing and a stitcher executed the design.
• Since the Pirates were getting new uniforms to go with their new stadium, Johnson thought the Steelers should get a makeover as well. Among other things, he wanted to change their helmet logo so it would only have Steelers colors. "But they had just started to get good, and Dan Rooney said it would be bad luck to change the uniform when the team was finally winning," says Johnson. "So I just ended up designing their stationery and business card."
Johnson had hoped to add another uniform design to his portfolio in 1977, when the Pirates decided to update his 1970 design with something flashier. He submitted these concepts, but the team instead went with their now-famous bumblebee set. It's not clear who designed those, but Uni Watch is on the case. Stay tuned.
Johnson says he never envisioned a pullover jersey and assumes the folks at Rawlings came up with that. But Johnson had some strong ideas about the pants. "I don't like black belts for baseball, because it's too much like something you take out of your regular pants and then put in your uniform," he said. "So I came up with a buttoned waistband. Remember those pants where there was no belt and you just hooked the little tab over? That's what I was going for."
So how did Rawlings translate that concept into the triple-striped waistband, and what about the pullover jersey? Did they come up with those ideas specifically for the Pirates, or had they already been offering that style to high school and college teams?
"Unfortunately, I can't confirm any of that that for sure," Rawlings brand marketing exec Kurt Hunzeker says. "We have all sorts of old files on stuff like this, but it's all in boxes in our warehouse and we haven't had time to sort through it. One thing I can tell you, though: The way we worked back then was top-down -- we'd design something for a big league team and then it would trickle down into what we offered to schools. So if we came up with those concepts in-house -- and it sounds like we probably did -- most likely it was just for the Pirates and then it spread from there."
4. What about the stretch-knit fabric? Denis Johnson had nothing to do with the uniform's fabrication, which means the fabric was almost certainly Rawlings' idea (although Hunzeker can't confirm that either). Terry Proctor, a longtime upstate New York uniform dealer who's something of a sporting goods scholar, says Rawlings' Pittsburgh sales agent at the time claimed that the fabric was his idea, although that's hearsay at best.
Interestingly, several sporting goods operations had been offering knit baseball uniforms for schools and youth leagues at least since the early 1960s (that page is from the 1961 catalog put out by Snyders, a New Jersey company), but those uniforms had conventional buttons and belts and were offered as a budget option for cash-strapped teams that couldn't afford flannels. Rawlings' breakthrough was to re-imagine this fabric as a "new generation" cloth, combined with the pullover and beltless formats, for big league use. As more teams used the fabric and offered feedback, the cotton/nylon blend was replaced with 100% polyester, which is still in use today. (If you really want to geek out on fabric info, see the "Men of the Cloth" sidebar elsewhere on this page.)
One final note: In researching this piece, Uni Watch was struck by the number of sources who mentioned that the new uniforms were particularly unflattering to Bucs skipper Danny Murtaugh, a gruff-looking old-schooler who always seemed out of place in the form-fitting stretch-knits. George Scheuring, who worked with Denis Johnson at Peter Muller-Munk Associates, put it like this: "One thing I remember is that the players were mostly trim and fit, but Danny Murtaugh, he had a big pouch. And people were saying, 'Everyone looks great in them except Murtaugh.' It really showed off his belly."
Ah, well. Every revolution has its casualties.
(Special thanks to Jerry Wolper and Dan Hart for their research assistance. For more information on the double-knit era, Uni Watch heartily recommends Bill Henderson's seminal guide MLB Game-Worn Jerseys of the Double-Knit Era.)
Paul Lukas wonders how many people realize that that the Pirates' colors used to be blue and red. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.