We've seen a wide array of Major League Baseball jerseys this season. Home jerseys, road jerseys, alternate jerseys, throwback jerseys, camouflage jerseys and special designs for Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and more.
But there's one type of jersey we haven't see very much of -- the vest. That's because there are only two vest jerseys currently in use by MLB teams: the Colorado Rockies' black alternate vest, which tends to be worn about once a week, and the Arizona Diamondbacks' cream throwback vest, which is worn for Thursday home games.
Only two vest jerseys currently in rotation in MLB: Rockies' alternates and Diamondbacks' throwbacks. pic.twitter.com/tlyAgTvppe— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
Vest jerseys have always been popular here at Uni Watch HQ -- there's something nice about the colored undershirt sleeves matching the colored socks, at least for players who cuff their pants up high -- so it's a little sad that there are so few of them currently in rotation. Granted, you wouldn't want to see every MLB team go vest-clad (the St. Louis Cardinals, for example, have never worn a vest and probably never should -- they just don't feel very vest-y), but it's a look that works for certain clubs, and there's definitely room for more of it on the diamond.
Which team came up with the idea of a vest-based uniform, anyway? That would be the Chicago Cubs, who wore a sleeveless alternate jersey in 1940. The idea was that the vests would be less constricting and allow greater freedom of movement.
MLB's first vests were worn by the 1940 Cubs. (They were zippered! Cubs had pioneered zippered jerseys in 1937.) pic.twitter.com/NzgNQqVMPx— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 18, 2016
The following year, the Cubbies took things a step further -- several steps, in fact -- by eliminating their sleeved jerseys and going fully vested. They also added a blue road vest (MLB's first powder blue uni, don'tcha know) and a white shoulder yoke to their blue undershirt, which created an interesting visual effect.
1941 Cubs added powder blue road vest and white shoulder yoke to home undershirt. pic.twitter.com/Mq5RBlk7fJ— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 18, 2016
Cubs' unusual early-'40s undershirt (with 1942 Hale America "Health" patch) was revived as a throwback in 2014. pic.twitter.com/UqFBZegzdY— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 18, 2016
The 1941 style has been preserved for posterity in this spring training video clip, one of the best documents of the early vest format:
The Cubbies' sleeveless experiment was short-lived, as they went back to wearing conventional jerseys in 1943. It would be more than a dozen years before another team took a vested interest: the 1956 Cincinnati Reds (or Redlegs, as they were then called due to the McCarthyite scare). Cincy stuck with the sleeveless format, in assorted designs, for 11 seasons before reverting back to sleeves.
The Reds' roster happened to include the ideal spokesman for the vested look: first baseman Ted Kluszewski. Big Klu liked to show off his sizable biceps by ripping the sleeves off his red undershirts, making him MLB's first truly sleeveless ballplayer.
Ted Kluszewski: the ultimate sleeveless ballplayer. Vest jersey and sleeves torn off of his undershirt. pic.twitter.com/m5hAfOzKMw— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 18, 2016
The Reds faced a bit of a vest-based problem in 1961, when team owner Powel Crosley died. MLB protocol at the time called for the addition of a black memorial armband (the advent of memorial patches was still more than a decade away), but how do you add an armband to your jersey sleeve if your jersey doesn't have sleeves? The Reds solved that problem by adding a black border to their left armhole -- the first vest memorial. (After one season, they decided they liked it so much that they added it to the other side -- not as a memorial, but just as a design element.)
Reds added memorial armhole band for Powel Crosely in 1961. Looked so good they added it to the other side in '62. pic.twitter.com/vWmmReVvuM— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 18, 2016
Unlike the Cubs, who stood alone as MLB's only vest-clad team, the Reds soon had company, as the 1957 Pirates, 1962 A's, 1963 Indians, and 1968 Orioles all climbed aboard the vest bandwagon. This period can be seen as the Golden Age of Vests, and even included MLB's first sleeveless World Series champions, the 1960 Pirates.
After Reds revived vest jerseys in 1956, several other teams got on board over the next dozen years. pic.twitter.com/3Q8xnI1Iwp— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
First team to win the World Series while wearing a vest jersey: the 1960 Pirates. pic.twitter.com/mowfK2pQkv— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
The Golden Age didn't last, as all MLB teams had gone back to wearing sleeves by 1972. But there was a sleeveless renaissance -- a Silver Age, if you will -- in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fueled in part of the alternate-jersey craze, which allowed teams to include a vest in their uniform rotation without fully committing to the sleeve-free look. At least 14 teams -- the Angels, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Diamondbacks, Indians, Mariners, Marlins, Pirates, Rangers, Rockies, Royals, Reds, Twins, White Sox -- wore vests during this period. The Silver Age also brought two more vest-clad World Series champs: the 1997 Marlins and the 2001 Diamondbacks.
Early MLB vests had unique tailoring (narrow shoulders, big armholes). Later ones just normal jerseys w/out sleeves. pic.twitter.com/VOFlefWRwY— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
After 1960 Pirates, the next vest-clad teams to win the World Series were the 1997 Marlins and 2001 Dbacks. pic.twitter.com/f7DttsAY5f— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
But the Silver Age soon ebbed as well, and now we're down to the Rockies and D-backs as the only remaining vested teams. Why have vests fallen out of favor? Some of it has to do with the natural ebb and flow of on-field fashion, but there's another factor to consider: merchandising. Fans are less inclined to buy vest jerseys, so teams are now less inclined to wear them. That wasn't an issue back in the Golden Age, because jersey retailing didn't yet exist.
One possible solution to the problem: the faux vest, which is basically a standard jersey with contrast-colored sleeves to simulate the vest format. This style was pioneered by the Angels in 1997 and was also worn by the Blue Jays.
Angels wore faux vest (actually a conventional jersey with contrast-colored sleeves) from 1997-2001. pic.twitter.com/tLOtXLDF62— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
Blue Jays wore real vests in 1999-2000 but switched to faux vests (basic jersey w/ contrasting sleeves) in 2001-03. pic.twitter.com/X148BMdqF2— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
And here's something you might not know: The Dodgers were planning to go with the faux vest style for their road jerseys in 1999. Prototypes were made, promotional merchandise was manufactured, and the design even appeared in video games and in the 1999 MLB Style Guide. But the Dodgers got cold feet and scrapped the idea before the start of the season, so this jersey never made it onto the field.
Fun fact: Dodgers planned (and then scrapped) faux-vest road jersey for 1999. It even appeared in MLB Style Guide. pic.twitter.com/UkWnYRnE5k— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 19, 2016
The faux vest isn't as satisfying as a real vest, of course, but the contrasting sleeves produce a similar visual effect and would probably be enough to overcome the usual consumer resistance to vests. Could that be enough to lead to a Bronze Age? Stay tuned.
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Paul Lukas had this Simpsons song stuck in his head while working on this piece. 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.