Last month we took a look at some notable uni-related MLB firsts and lasts -- the first team to wear a memorial patch, the last player to wear a batting helmet without an earflap, and so on. That led to lots of suggestions of additional uni-related firsts and lasts, so let's take a look at some of those:
1. The first team to wear shorts. OK, so this is an easy one. The first and so far only MLB team to wear shorts was the White Sox. Interestingly, the legend of the shorts has outstripped the reality -- TV broadcasters will sometimes refer to Sox having worn the shorts for an entire season, or even multiple seasons, but they actually went shorts-clad for only three games in 1976 and '77. One of those games, which took place on Aug. 22, 1976, has been preserved for posterity in this priceless home movie footage:
Fun fact: While the Sox were the first (and probably last) team to wear shorts at the big league level, quite a few minor league teams wore shorts before the Sox did, including the Hollywood Stars, Austin Braves, Houston Buffaloes, Miami Beach Flamingos and others.
And while we're at it, Giants outfielder Hunter Pence has been cuffing his pants at near-shorts-like heights lately. If he ever ends up playing for the White Sox, they'll have to break out the shorts for a throwback game, just for him.
2. The first team to wear white shoes. It probably won't surprise you to learn that the first team to wear white shoes on the diamond is also the only team that still does so: the A's. But they were still in Kansas City when owner Charles Finley decided to have his players go ivory-shod. The move was so controversial that Indians manager Joe Adcock actually filed a protest to the league office, in which he claimed the white footwear on the A's pitchers made it harder for hitters to pick up the ball. But American League president Joe Cronin turned down the protest, paving the way for the white shoes to become part of the A's signature look. By the following year they'd even been added to the team's primary logo.
Lots of other teams have experimented with white shoes over the years, including the Angels, Astros, Giants, Padres, Phillies, and Senators. But those teams all abandoned the white cleats -- only the A's have stayed the course. (If you want to learn more, Uni Watch reader Wally Campbell has written a fairly comprehensive treatise on the history of the A's white footwear.)
3. The first team to wear batting practice jerseys. Nowadays, every team has a BP jersey. Credit (or, if you prefer, blame) for that goes to the White Sox, who pioneered the concept back in 1971. Eight years later, BP jerseys were still more the exception than the rule -- only seven teams were using them -- but they were given a national showcase when Pete Rose forgot to bring his game jersey to the 1979 All-Star Game and ended up playing in his BP jersey. That sparked a flurry of interest in BP jerseys, and soon just about every team was using them.
Meanwhile, which team was the first to wear BP caps? That's a trick question, because all 30 major league teams began wearing BP caps at the same time in 1999.
4. The first team to wear pullover jerseys and beltless pants. Baseball jerseys have buttons, and baseball pants have belts -- except for that period when they didn't. Those pullover jerseys and elastic-waistbanded pants were ushered in by the 1970 Pirates, but they didn't wear them at the start of the season -- the Buccos played the first half of the 1970 season in their traditional button-front jerseys and belted pants. But on July 16, they played their first game in their new home, Three Rivers Stadium, which was supposed to have been ready for the start of the season but had been plagued by construction delays. They debuted the new uniforms to go along with the new ballpark. (You can learn more about this here.)
Whether they intended to or not, the Pirates started a revolution. By the start of the 1973 season -- only 2 1/2 years after the Pirates unveiled their new design -- 14 major league teams 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 wore a pullover at some point, and those same four teams plus the Mets are the only ones that never went beltless.
But this revolution turned out to be short-lived. By 1993, all teams had returned to button-front jerseys and belted pants (although the pullover-beltless look still resurfaces now and then for throwback games).
5. The first catcher to wear a hockey-style mask. There are two primary styles of catcher's masks: traditional and hockey-style. The latter design was first worn by journeyman backstop Charlie O'Brien during his stint with the Blue Jays in 1999. After taking a few too many foul tips to the face, O'Brien wanted a mask that could provide better impact absorption, so he worked with an Ontario hockey equipment manufacturer to come up with something akin to a goalie's mask. He initially planned to have it made just for himself, but other catchers soon wanted to wear it. The design eventually developed a cadre of devotees throughout the game. Fifteen years after O'Brien's innovation, some catchers prefer the hockey style and others stick with the traditional mask, which they say is lighter and less cumbersome.
As long as we're talking about catchers: The traditional mask used to be worn over a backward cap, but MLB rules now require catchers to wear a helmet. In this interview, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench claims to have been the first catcher to wear a helmet. Not positive that's true (ballplayers often make claims that don't quite hold up to scrutiny), but he was certainly among the first.
And as long as we're talking about Bench: He might also have been the first to wear his chest protector without the vertical strap that most chest protectors had. A few other catchers wore their gear this way, most notably Gary Carter, but the style remains most closely associated with Bench.
That's enough for now, but there are lots of additional MLB firsts and lasts for us to explore down the road. Do you have suggestions for items to be included? Send them here.
(Special thanks to Jerry Wolper and Rick Pearson for their research assistance.)
Paul Lukas was the first to write a sports column about uniforms. 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.