The exclusive untold story behind the Astros' rainbow uniform

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Some stories are worth the wait -- even if the wait takes more than 40 years.

Case in point: The Houston Astros' famous rainbow uniform debuted in 1975. In a recent Uni Watch column that listed 10 things you might not know about that uniform, we mentioned that the uni was designed by the Houston-based ad agency McCann Erickson but lamented that neither the Astros nor McCann had saved any of their original files from the project. Nobody even knew who had worked on the design, or if those people were still alive. Sportswriters didn't give much coverage to uniforms in those days, so newspaper archives didn't offer much help either. It seemed like the story behind the creation of this uniform -- arguably the most radical design in MLB history -- might go untold.

Fortunately, that column caught the eye of reader Derek Rollins, whose father, Gary Rollins, worked for the Astros in the mid-1970s and, as it turns out, was the team's point person on the rainbow-uniform project. An interview with Rollins in turn led to contact with several people from McCann Erickson's design team, and soon the story began to fall into place.

Most of the people interviewed for this piece are getting on in years. Their memories of events from more than four decades ago are sometimes fuzzy, their recollections occasionally contradict each other and none of them saved any of their original paperwork or other materials. But they've provided enough information to piece together an oral history of how this revolutionary uniform was created.

Before we dive in, here's our cast of characters:

Gary Rollins ran the Astros' radio and TV networks, for which he was in charge of selling ad sponsorships. He also worked for McCann Erickson earlier in his career, which is apparently why he became the team's point person on the uniform project.

Jesse Caesar was a creative director at McCann Erickson and was in charge of the design team that created the uniform.

Jack Amuny is a freelance graphic designer who was hired by McCann as a subcontractor on the uniform project.

Don Henry is a graphic designer who worked for Amuny in his studio.

Tal Smith is a former Astros general manager and team president.

Unfortunately, some other key figures in the storyline are now deceased, most notably former Astros general manager Spec Richardson, who apparently had a significant impact on how the design turned out. But we still have enough information to answer most of the important questions about the rainbow design, starting with this one: Why did the Astros want a new uniform in the first place, and how did the project get started?

Gary Rollins, former VP of Astros TV and radio network: "We were in severe financial trouble and very close to being bankrupt. Also, we had a pretty bad ballclub. [Team owner] Judge Hofheinz wanted to put a new face on everything. He wanted something that would look uniquely special. So I went to McCann Erickson, which was one of our ad agencies, and had them take a completely fresh look at developing a new on-field look for the team. This would probably have been in late 1974. The guy at McCann who worked with us on this project was Jesse Caesar."

Jesse Caesar, former creative director at McCann Erickson: "We got that project because we did all the advertising for AstroWorld, which was an amusement park that later became part of Six Flags. So we already had a relationship with the Astros."

Rollins: "McCann hadn't done a uniform before. The team's previous uniforms had been designed by Gulf State Advertising. That company's gone, and so are all the principals, unfortunately."

Caesar: "I'd never worked on a uniform before. But it was the era of the Athletics with their colorful uniforms, and other teams, like the White Sox. I think everybody was reassessing what they could do, except for the Yankees."

Rollins: "McCann wasn't just tasked with coming up with a new uniform, but a new kind of uniform. So Jesse and his people, they came up with the idea for the horizontal stripes."

Caesar: "I wish I could take the credit for the stripes, but the idea came from someone else on my team. There was a guy who had a local art studio, and on major projects we farmed a lot of the stuff out to him. That's what we did here. His name was Jack Amuny. He's the one who actually put pen to paper."

Jack Amuny, graphic designer: "McCann Erickson was one of my clients. I had an ongoing relationship with them, including some work I had done for AstroWorld. I had never worked on a sports design project before, but I was a big baseball fan and a big Astros fan. The colors were already established, the various shades of orange, but I came up with the idea for the stripes. Honestly, I would have preferred something more conservative, like pinstripes, but they wanted something a little different, so that's why I went with the horizontal stripes."

Caesar: "Today, of course, you'd do it on a computer. But back then you had to do everything by hand."

Amuny: "I had to cut out strips of colored paper and lay them out to show the design. You'd go to the art supply store and buy these nice, beautiful papers in all different shades. We cut 'em out, glued 'em down. I had two guys working for me -- their names were Don Henry and Robert Paretti -- so they helped with that."

Don Henry, assistant designer: "I remember they wanted to do something really different that would stand out, something that wasn't traditional. So Jack came up with the stripes -- that was his baby. I remember us cutting out strips of different widths. Jack fooled around with them for a day or two, trying to get a pleasing effect."

Amuny: "We tried different sequences of the colors, seeing how it looked best with the various yellows and oranges and reds. I'm gonna say it was about 11 by 17 [inches]. I wish I still had some of those layouts, but I don't."

So now we know: The most influential design in modern baseball uniform history was created by an unsung subcontractor using colored strips of paper. But there's one question that has never been satisfactorily answered: What was the idea behind the stripes? What were they supposed to symbolize?

Caesar: "I think the stripes were supposed to be the colors of the southwest, or a Texas sunset. Something like that. But mainly we just wanted to get some color in there."

Amuny: "The stripes didn't symbolize anything at all. I had just finished another project where I was doing freehand-looking stripes for a 100-foot wall, so I guess I was in my stripe period. I think at that time I was very interested in relationships between different weights of lines and bars and stuff like that. And I always loved color sequence. So that was about it."

Henry: "I don't remember the stripes representing anything. I think it was just an abstract kind of thing."

Rollins: "The rainbow stripes originally started on the right side toward the back, came under the right arm, across the chest, and then on the left side of the chest they hit up against a white star. That gave the illusion of movement from right to left. So the stripes were supposed to be like contrails, left in the wake of the star as it moved."

Rollins' description is similar to a prototype uniform that was produced and photographed at some point in the design process. It shows a white star on the jersey, instead of the blue one that was eventually used (the party line has always been that Major League Baseball thought the white star could be used to "hide" a pitch, so that's why the color was changed), along with a white cap. The cap logo is similar to the "A" on the chest lettering. And sure enough, the stripes stop when they bump up against the star, instead of wrapping around to the back.

How did the design shift from the prototype version to the final version? And were any other changes made along the way?

Amuny: "I like symmetry -- everything I do is lined up. So I had the Astros' team name in the center and the star was centered beneath it. And that was pretty much the only change they made, that I can recall, was to move the star over to one side."

Henry: "I don't think there were many revisions. Once Jack worked it out, I don't think they changed it much after that. It went pretty smooth and people liked it."

Rollins: "I can look back and laugh about it now, but all the great work McCann did -- piece by piece, Spec Richardson managed to destroy it. First he got rid of the white star. And then I guess he was talking to the uniform guys and they decided it would be easier to execute if the stripes wrapped all the way around the body. That destroyed the illusion of movement. Then they added stripes to the sleeves, which further wrecked the design, and then Spec had them add stripes to the pants, which were supposed to be white. My heart was broken when I saw all of that. All it did was gaudy up what had been a really clean look."

Amuny: "A white star and a white cap? No, I don't remember anything about that. But I do remember this: At one point I had to go out to the Astrodome with a fabric sample that the uniform manufacturer had sent, showing how the different colors butted up to one another. And I had to take it to, I guess it was Spec Richardson, to get his approval. And that was almost instantaneous: Walked in, walked out with the OK."

Gary Rollins: "The original design had a white cap with an orange bill. Now, there was a country club just outside of Houston, in Atascocita, that had just come out with a logo -- an 'A' with a star -- that really looked neat. So I went there and said, 'Can we buy that from you, so we can use it on the uniform?' They said, 'Buy it? Just give us tickets and we'll give the damn thing to you.' But Spec said, 'No, Gary, we can't do that. We have over 1,000 orange caps in storage that we've already bought for next season.' So that's how we stayed with the orange cap we already had."

Caesar: "We wanted everything to be very legible, easy to read, so we used a sans serif typeface."

Rollins: "The numbers on the back of the uniform were done in a typeface that was invented the same year baseball was invented. And then the player's name above that was done in what you'd consider back then to be a computer typeface. So you had the contrast between the very old and the very new -- it really looked pretty jazzy. But Spec said the computer typeface was too hard to read, so we went with a more conventional typeface. So this really exceptional design had just been trashed, one element at a time."

The rainbow uniform had several other innovative elements. Each player wore his uniform number on the right pant leg, and there were no road grays -- the same uniform was worn for every game, at home and on the road. Who came up with those ideas?

Caesar: "The number on the pants? That was so it would be visible when the guy was batting. You can't see the number or name on the back, but at least you can see the number on his pants. I think that was the reason."

Rollins: "That was Jesse's idea. Having the stripes running across the jersey was going to take up some space, so we couldn't put the number there. So we said, 'Why don't we try putting it on the right leg?' And nobody else was doing that, so we went ahead and did it."

Caesar: "I can't remember exactly why we decided not to have separate home and travel uniforms, except I think we basically asked ourselves, 'Has this ever been done before?' Not that we knew of. So let's try it. As an ad agency, we knew that's what a client likes -- new ideas."

Rollins: "The pants were supposed to be white at home. And then on the road, the pants would have been orange. Or maybe the orange pants could be used for special occasions, like a Sunday game or a holiday. But that didn't work out either. I don't remember why."

Caesar: "Orange pants? I don't recall that."

Amuny: "Orange pants on the uniform? I don't know about that, but we made sports coats and slacks for when the team was traveling, and they were blue and orange -- it was wild. You would have known that these were the Astros, for sure."

Caesar: "The presentation went beyond the uniforms. I recall we designed blazers with some sort of an emblem, for when the team was traveling."

When the uniform was finally revealed in 1975, it instantly became the most polarizing design in baseball. Some people loved it, others hated, but nobody could ignore it.

Rollins: "Fans were pretty excited about it. As for the players, it was a different era. They liked it because that's what the club wanted them to do. They didn't have a lot of latitude to complain about the uniforms, or even have anyone asking their opinion."

Caesar: "If I remember right, sportscasters thought it was ridiculous."

Amuny: "Most of the guys in the graphic-arts world are sports guys. And when they saw what I did, they wanted to kill me. For a long time, I didn't tell anybody I did it. I didn't list it on my résumé, I didn't talk about it, because I didn't know how people would take it. Here I am, this guy on the street who comes into this very specialized world and does something crazy. I didn't want anybody mad at me."

Henry: "When it came out, I heard some negative reaction, people saying they didn't like it or whatever. But I think later on, people grew to like it."

Amuny: "As far as fan reaction, I don't recall. I think I was probably hiding under the bed or something like that. I think I heard that some of the players did not like it."

Rollins: "Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned uniforms. I always looked at the Detroit Tigers -- that's the way you ought to look, or the Cardinals, or the Dodgers. But I couldn't worry about any of that. We had a lousy baseball team, and my job was to sell the [TV and radio] sponsorships, and those uniforms were a great attention-getting device for that. That year, we sold out the network earlier than we'd ever done before. It was all about entertainment."

Tal Smith, who became the Astros' GM after Richardson was fired during the 1975 season: "I had been working for the Yankees before I rejoined the Astros in August of 1975, and it was quite a change to go from the majestic pinstripes to the flashy rainbows. But I really liked the design -- it was distinctive, and it had been embraced by the Houston fans by the time I got there. Frankly, until recently that was the worst team in Astros history, so we had a lot to do from a marketing standpoint, and the uniform was an important step. The one thing I did not care for was the circle on the back of the jersey. It looked too much like a bull's-eye, which was the last thing we needed. I lobbied pretty hard to get that changed for the next season."

The Astros stopped wearing the rainbow uniform after the 1986 season. By that time, the design seemed very dated -- a quintessentially 1970s look that hadn't aged well. More recently, however, there has been a surprising rainbow renaissance. The design has become a top-selling throwback, countless college and high school teams wear some version of it and the Astros have incorporated aspects of it into their current visual program.

Rollins: "I follow the College World Series, and I believe Louisville had a version of that uniform. I'm not surprised, really."

Caesar: "I'm proud of it, absolutely. Most of the people seeing the uniform today, they might not have even been around when it was first worn. It was before their time. But they know it now."

Amuny: "I didn't think I was doing something revolutionary. It was just a job, and I did it the best that I could. But was I proud? Oh, absolutely. And you know, even today, it's one of the biggest-selling retro jerseys, and lots of high school and college teams have done knockoffs of it. I really appreciated when I saw teams doing that. As a designer, you always want to create something that can last, and that's what's happened."

Smith: "Whenever I watch an Astros road game on TV, you can pick out the Astros fans in the crowd because of the rainbow jersey. You'll always see a few people wearing it in every ballpark."

Caesar: "I watched the Astros on TV last night, and here are the guys selling cotton candy, going up and down the aisles in that very same uniform! And you'll see fans -- some of them little bitty guys, only 6 or 8 years old at the most -- wearing that uniform. That, to me, is very surprising, that it would endure for so long, because people are usually fickle. What's in today is out tomorrow. But I guess sometimes it comes back around."

More than 40 years later, Rollins, Caesar, Amuny, Henry and Smith all still live in the Houston area. Smith still has some consulting clients, and Amuny continues to do some graphic-design work. (After our interview, he graciously agreed to recreate his original rainbow-jersey concept, complete with the star in the center, using colored strips of paper.) The others are retired. None of them ever worked on another uniform design.

As for the Astros, they've never heard of any of the people from the old McCann design team. But they're excited to reconnect with this chapter in their history.

"We'd love to do something with them, maybe the next time we wear that uniform," said Anita Sehgal, the team's senior vice president for marketing and communications. "And you know, that rainbow pattern is what provides continuity through the side panels on our Sunday uniforms, our vendor uniforms and more. It's stood the test of time for every generation. So meeting these guys would be a great experience for us."

It promises to be a great reunion -- one that has been more than four decades in the making.

Paul Lukas looks forward to telling the untold stories behind other uniform designs. If you like 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, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, 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.