St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner. That means teams throughout much of the sports world will be wearing green or green-accented uniforms, a trend most commonly associated with MLB spring training games. But the first St. Patrick's Day uniform gimmick didn't take place on the baseball diamond -- it was on a basketball court. And no, it had nothing to do with the Boston Celtics. In fact, it didn't even involve the use of green.
The year was 1971, and the team was the Miami Floridians of the old ABA. The Floridians' uniforms were already pretty eccentric -- they had a crazy fuschia-and-orange color scheme with no team name on the front and the players' names positioned below the numbers on the back. But when they took the court on March 17, there was something different about those player names -- Mack Calvin was suddenly O'Calvin, Ira Harge was O'Harge, and so on.
The Irish-themed nameplates were the brainchild of Floridians owner Ned Doyle. You can see further details in this old Sporting News article (written, appropriately, by a reporter named Jim O'Brien), which was unearthed by uniform designer and historian Todd Radom.
For better or worse, the Floridians' stunt didn't catch on. It wasn't until seven years later, in 1978, that another team wore special uniforms for St. Patrick's Day. That's when the Cincinnati Reds were preparing for a spring training game against the New York Yankees and found special uniforms waiting in their lockers. Everything that was normally red -- the chest logo, the lettering and numbering, the stripes on the sleeves and waistband, the caps, the stirrups, the undershirts -- had been rendered in green.
First team to wear green for St. Patrick's Day: 1978 Cincinnati Reds, in a spring training game against the Yankees. pic.twitter.com/619oQJS4RH— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) March 3, 2016
There was no advance notice or hype, so the whole thing was a well-engineered surprise -- especially coming from the Reds, a famously straitlaced organization that had banned facial hair and insisted that its players wear plain black cleats without any stripes or logos.
Special occasion uniforms were unheard of back in the 1970s, so the Reds' players didn't know what to think. Catcher Johnny Bench reportedly said, "Did we get traded to Oakland?" and shortstop Davey Concepcion said, "I'm not wearing that. I'm Venezuelan, not Irish." (Spoiler alert: Concepcion wore the uni, just like the rest of the Reds. Additional info is available here.)
It wasn't until the 1980s that a few other MLB teams began following the Reds' lead, but the trend eventually caught on throughout much of the sport. According to William Henderson's definitive "Game Worn Guide to MLB Jerseys, 1970-2015," 16 of the 30 MLB teams have worn green jerseys on March 17 at least once, and many of the remaining 14 teams have taken the somewhat lazier approach of pairing their regular spring training jerseys with green caps. (Even the Reds, who pioneered the green unis, have sometimes gone with the green headwear and called it a day.)
Speaking of laziness, some teams don't even bother with fitted caps for St. Paddy's Day, opting instead for the snapback variety. And it's pretty much a given that nobody will spring for green batting helmets like the Reds did in '78.
Typical sights on St. Patrick's Day: Green snapback caps, non-matching batting helmets. pic.twitter.com/8xp2j9Scd9— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) March 4, 2016
One footnote to all of this: At various points the White Sox have marked St. Patrick's Day by wearing either solid-green jerseys or just green caps. But from 2005 through 2011 they held an annual "Halfway to St. Patrick's Day" promotion in mid-September. These games featured green-accented uniforms that lived up to the Reds' original concept, including green batting helmets and even green belts.
Great gimmick uniform: the White Sox's "Halfway to St. Patrick's Day" design, worn in mid-Sept. from 2005-11: pic.twitter.com/0FPabVix5F— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) March 7, 2016
Meanwhile, other sports eventually joined the trend. In 2006, the NBA began having a few teams per year wear special uniforms for St. Patrick's Day.
NBA promotion of having select teams wear special uniforms for St. Patrick's Day dates back to 2006. pic.twitter.com/SEjs1xPcET— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) March 7, 2016
The NHL has taken a more reserved approach, having teams wear green jerseys for pregame warm-ups but not for the actual games.
NHL teams only celebrate St. Patrick's Day with green warm-up jerseys, not game jerseys. pic.twitter.com/BM0z4ONUCM— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) March 7, 2016
One exception to the NHL rule can be found in New Jersey, where the Devils have traditionally worn their green-accented throwback uniforms.
One NHL team does go green for March 17 games: The Devils wear their green-accented throwbacks. pic.twitter.com/BSRTqeg7xE— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) March 7, 2016
The only major-level pro league that hasn't climbed aboard the St. Patrick's Day bandwagon is the NFL, and one suspects that's only because the football season doesn't extend into mid-March -- yet.
Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.
Paul Lukas' favorite color has always been green. 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.