Polyester sent baseball colors to new hues

May, 16, 2013
5/16/13
8:30
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Philadelphia PhilliesFocus on Sport/Getty ImagesSteve Carlton, Jim Kaat and Jim Lonborg wore the Philadelphia Phillies' powder blues in the mid-'70s.
The protocol for home and road uniforms on the baseball diamond is simple: The home team wears white and the road team wears gray.

Or at least that's how it was until 1963 -- 50 years ago this season. That's when Kansas City Athletics owner Charles Finley decided to try something new: He dressed the A's in green and gold.

Finley was quickly labeled as a nut (and not for the last time), but he turned out to be a chromatic visionary. Baseball uniforms exploded with color in the 1970s. Even the road uniforms got colorful, as many teams started wearing powder blues instead of road grays. To get an idea of just how colorful that era was, take a look at the 1979 National League All-Star team portrait -- yowza!

There were two reasons for all that color. The first, whose potential Finley was quick to recognize, was the rise of color television. There was no point in creating colorful uniforms in the black-and-white TV era. But as more and more Americans made the switch to color TVs (I remember when our family got our first one in 1973, and we were fairly late to the party), teams wanted to take advantage of the new medium. And for better or worse -- probably a bit of both -- many of them did.

The second color-enabling development was the transition from flannel uniforms to polyester stretch-knits, which began with the 1970 Pirates. By 1973, all 24 MLB clubs had made the switch. The new fabrics allowed for a much wider range of color possibilities.

These same two factors -- color TV and synthetic fabrics -- also contributed to an explosion of color in civilian clothing. So baseball uniforms were actually just mirroring what was happening in the larger worlds of apparel and fashion.

The crazy clothing fashions of the 1970s eventually subsided, of course, and you may think MLB uniforms eventually returned to normal too. But did they? On a recent Wednesday, 10 of the 30 MLB teams were wearing solid-colored jerseys instead of white or gray, and that's pretty standard nowadays. Granted, the wacky design flourishes from the ’70s are gone, but the color from that era remains. Sometimes you even get a game that's color versus color.

There's another factor driving today's colored jerseys, of course: merchandising. Charlie Finley was a born huckster, but even he couldn’t foresee that baseball fans would gladly fork over $200 for a polyester shirt. (Somewhere up there, Finley's ghost is saying, "D'oh!" over the lost business opportunity.) Now that jersey sales represent a major revenue stream, teams have an extra incentive to add colored alternate jerseys to their wardrobe, if only because they can sell them.

Some fans love colored jerseys; others hate them and dismissively refer to them as "softball tops." Personally, I don't care for them, but I accept that they're here to stay. Here are some common sense rules that would help make them more acceptable:

1. If you want to have a colored alternate jersey, well, OK. But nobody -- nobody -- needs two different versions for home and the road. That just makes you look like a greedy profiteer who's trying to sell as many jerseys as possible.

2. Some teams -- primarily the older, more storied franchises -- just don't look right in a colored jersey. They should stick to white and gray.

3. Colored jerseys should never be worn on Opening Day, major holidays, or Sundays. You wouldn't wear an overly flashy outfit to church or to your grandmother's Christmas feast, right? Show a little class and dress appropriately on special days.

4. It's one thing to have a team wearing colored jerseys. But having two color-clad teams on the field at the same time -- a color-against-color game -- really does look like beer league softball. So if the home team is wearing its colored jersey, the road team should have to wear gray.

Don't like these rules? Make up your own! Or just scrap the rules and have a colorful free-for-all. Charlie Finley would certainly approve.

Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for ESPN.com since 2004. 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.

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