Uni Watch's Friday Flashback: MLB's sock evolution

Back in the day when stirrups ruled (3:14)

UNI Watch's Paul Lukas looks back to when baseball players cared to flaunt their socks during games. (3:14)

As you may have heard earlier this week, Major League Baseball now has its first-ever official sock provider. But that might not matter very much, because most MLB players wear their pants down to their shoetops, with no sock exposed.

How did we get here? How did a sport featuring teams with names like "Red Sox" and "White Sox" end up with almost no visible socks? Let's try to answer that question with this selective timeline of baseball's hosiery history:

1840s and 1850s: Early baseball teams wear "suits" with long trousers that obscure the players' socks.

1868: A Cincinnati team makes history by introducing baseball's first knickers, exposing the players' red socks. The move is controversial, with team president Aaron Champion later recalling, "The showing of the manly leg in varied-colored hose ... [was] unheard of, and when [team captain] Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies' faces blushed [just] as red, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent." The team renames itself the Cincinnati Red Stockings (and endures today as the Cincinnati Reds).

Late 1800s through early 1900s: The knickers look catches on and becomes standard throughout the sport, with some teams featuring bold hoop stripes on their socks.

Circa 1910: With many players sliding into bases spikes first, infielders frequently end up being cut in the shins. Colorfast dyes have not yet been invented, so sock pigments can infect the wounds, resulting in infections and blood poisoning. The solution: White undersocks (known as "sanitaries," because they provide a sanitary layer of protection) are added beneath the colored socks. Wearing two socks would lead to problems, because the players' shoes would no longer fit, so the colored outer socks are given cutouts at the bottom. This is the birth of the stirrup/sanitary combo, which will define the sport's dominant lower-leg look for approximately the next 75 years.

1940s, 1950s and 1960s: Players begin pulling their stirrups up higher, exposing larger and larger portions of the sanitaries. Stirrup manufacturers respond by producing stirrups with larger and larger openings. By the mid-1960s, the ratio of color to white is roughly even.

Late 1960s: Some players, particularly African-Americans, take things a step further by cutting the bottoms of their stirrups and having extra strips of fabric sewn in, effectively making their stirrup openings even larger. Pitcher Jim Bouton later describes the trend in "Ball Four," his diary of the 1969 season: "It has become the fashion -- I don't know how it started, possibly with Frank Robinson -- to have long, long stirrups with a lot of white showing. The higher your stirrups, the cooler you are. Your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot. The way to make your stirrups longest, or what are called high-cuts, is to slice the stirrup and sew in some extra material." This phenomenon brings stirrups and sanitaries to a tipping point: The color-to-white ratio, which had originally favored color, now favors white for the first time.

1970s and beyond: Stirrup manufacturers again respond to player preferences by offering stirrups with larger and larger openings. This eventually leads to the development of the ribbon stirrup -- a single vertical strip of fabric. This, in turn, leads someone to think, "If the stirrup is just a vertical stripe, why not just have a sock with a stripe knit into the design?" The two-in-one -- so named because it combines the stirrup and sanitary into one sock -- is thus born.

1978: Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm has his players supplied with long pants, marking the first time in over a century that a baseball team has intentionally obscured its socks. With relatively few people paying attention to college baseball at the time, the "Clemson Cut," as it becomes known, goes largely unnoticed but is a harbinger of things to come.

1980s and 1990s: With MLB socks having transitioned from mostly colored to mostly white, an increasing number of players conclude that hiking up their pants is no longer worth the bother. Cardinals outfielder George Hendrick is often credited as the pioneer of this movement, but there are several other early adopters, including Mets pitcher Ron Darling.

2000s: As long pants become more the rule than the exception, players come up with various "MacGyver"-like methods to keep their pant legs anchored to their shoes (all of which are later banned). Socks, meanwhile, become an afterthought.

And that's pretty much how we got from there to here. Of course, there are still a few high-cuffed hosiery holdouts, like Curtis Granderson, and even the occasional stirrup stalwart, like Francisco Lindor, but they're now the outliers.

You may be asking why MLB doesn't simply follow the NFL's lead and enforce the rules regarding pant length and sock exposure. The problem with that is there are no such rules to enforce. The MLB rulebook is notoriously persnickety about certain uniform elements (a team's undershirts must all be the same color, for example) but is silent on the issue of lower-leg stylings. Any new rule would have to be approved by the players' union as part of the collective bargaining process. The union, wanting to preserve as much flexibility as possible for its members, would almost certainly oppose such a rule.

All of which brings us back to the MLB's new sock deal with Stance. Will many players even bother to show off the new socks? Time will tell. But if they do, they'll be bucking a sock-diminution trend that, as we've just seen, dates back more than a century.

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

Paul Lukas goes high-cuffed with stirrups when playing softball. 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.