Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: Buzz, buzz go the Pirates

Bumblebees anyone? (3:03)

Uni Watch's Paul Lukas looks back at one of baseball's more memorable throwbacks, the 1970s bumblebee Pittsburgh Pirates jersey. (3:03)

The Pittsburgh Pirates wore their new Sunday throwback uniform for the first time last weekend (you can see a detailed breakdown here). The Pirates are calling it a "1979 throwback" -- understandable, because they won the World Series that year -- but this design was actually part of a larger mix-and-match uniform set that was worn from 1977 through 1984, a period that uni aficionados now refer to as the team's "bumblebee era." That era cemented the Pirates' status as MLB's most creative team when it came to uniforms, and we're going to take a closer look at it today.

It's worth noting that the Pirates had already established themselves as uniform innovators earlier in the decade. In 1970, they pioneered the switch from button-front jerseys to pullovers, from belted pants to elastic waistbands, and from flannels to stretch-knits, all of which was tremendously influential. (You can read more about that here.) But in 1977 they took things a step further by unveiling a sprawling uniform set whose various components were designed to be mixed and matched, creating MLB's most versatile wardrobe to that time.

Jerseys and pants both came in three different designs -- black, gold, and white with thick gold pinstripes -- allowing for nine different combinations:

If nine uni combinations sounds like a lot, the number actually could have been significantly higher, because the team's caps, stirrups and base-layer shirts were all available in black and gold, which theoretically increased the number of possible configurations to 72. In reality, though, the caps, stirrups and undershirts tended to be paired with specific elements (the gold jersey, for example, was always worn with a black cap, the black pants were always worn with gold stirrups, and so on), so the Pirates' crazy quilt of on-field looks wasn't quite as crazy as it could have been.

But the sheer multiplicity of designs wasn't the only notable aspect of the bumblebee set. There were also the caps, which were made in the old-school pillbox format. Many National League teams, including the Pirates, had worn the pillbox style in 1976, in celebration of the league's centennial. All the other teams went back to conventional rounded crowns in 1977, but the pillbox style had been popular in Pittsburgh, so the team decided to stick with it. By all rights, the pairing of the old-school cap with the newfangled mix-and-match uniform system should have been a stylistic mismatch, but somehow it worked.

The pillbox caps took on a new dimension in 1979, when team captain Willie Stargell began awarding his teammates "Stargell Stars" -- little gold stars that functioned much like college football merit decals. The flat panels of the pillbox caps turned out to be the perfect surface for the the stars, which eventually spread to batting helmets and became something of a phenomenon that extended beyond the Pirates and even beyond baseball:

The team's headwear was even more unusual during the second half of the 1978 season, when right fielder Dave Parker returned to action after missing time with a fractured jaw and cheekbone. Parker, always an intimidating-looking presence on the diamond, looked even more fearsome thanks to a series of masks that the team's equipment staff rigged up to help protect his injured face (further info here):

And there were still more unusual aspects to these uniforms, although some of them were rather subtle. For one thing, the unis were manufactured by Descente, a Japanese company, which made them the first Japanese-made uniforms in MLB history. That led to an unusual situation, as former Pirates pitcher Jerry Reuss recalled a few years ago in a Uni Watch interview: "A union that made uniforms sent a telegram to Willie Stargell asking him to encourage the players not to wear these, because they weren't made in America. But Willie said, 'Look, I'm a baseball player. I'm not a union representative. So let's go play.' So that was that." (You can see more of Reuss' thoughts about the bumblebee uniforms here.)

But wait -- only some of the uniforms were Japanese-made. The pinstriped and black components were made by Descente, but the gold jerseys and pants were made by Rawlings (in 1977) and Wilson (1978 through 1984). This mattered more than you might think, as former Pirates pitcher and current broadcaster Bob Walk explained from the booth during last Sunday's throwback game. "Those uniforms -- they all didn't fit the same," he said. "Nowadays, no matter what team you play for, the uniform's made by the same company, everything always fits the same. The Pirates, they had all those different uniforms, and they weren't all made by the same company, either. So, you know, the black pants and the white pants, they would fit and feel totally different."

Little by little, the bumblebee era became less quirky over the years. The pinstripes were replaced by standard white jerseys and pants in 1980, and Stargell's retirement at the end of the 1982 season brought an end to the Stargell Stars. The bumblebee era officially ended in 1985, as the team reverted to conventional home whites and road grays, although the pillbox cap remained until 1987.

This season isn't the first time the Pirates have worn bumblebee-era throwbacks. They've previously turned back the clock to wear solid gold, solid black and pinstripes over black. But those were all one-off games -- 2016 marks the first time they'll be honoring the bumblebee era on a consistent basis for Sunday home games. It would be nice if they could do a bit of mixing and matching, instead of just sticking to the gold-over-black configuration, but maybe they'll roll out a different combo next season. Hope so.

Would you like to nominate a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas' favorite bumblebee-era combo is the pinstriped jersey with the gold pants. 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.