BY CHRIS REWERS
For most of baseball’s history, socks were one of the most important uniform components.
But now, from T-ball to the major leagues, a part of the uniform that teams used to wear with pride has been reduced to a mere optional necessity. The downfall of baseball socks began in the 1960s and by the turn of the century, they had disappeared beneath baggy pajama-like pants.
Socks have made somewhat of a comeback in recent years, but to a guy like me, who appreciates structure and conformity, the state of sock style is an absolute mess.
Baseball teams experimented with a plethora of uniform styles during the sport’s infancy and by the team the game began being played professionally in the years following the Civil War, most teams had adopted military-style uniforms that featured long trousers that were held down by pant clips around the ankles.
Harry Wright, the manager of baseball’s first all-professional team, in Cincinnati, had experimented with several uniform styles but by 1869, finding that his players felt more comfortable and could move more quickly, he had adopted white or gray baggy knicker pants with long, wool red knee-high stockings.
The look, which became familiar to generations of baseball players and fans, became the team’s trademark. So much so, that “Red Stockings” had become the team’s nickname by the summer of ’69.
The Red Stockings, who went 65-0 in 1869, became a sensation. Photographs of the Red Stockings regularly appeared in newspapers from coast to coast. They traveled to play teams on the east coast, and thanks to the just completed Transcontinental Railroad, completed their undefeated campaign with a victory in San Francisco.
By the time the National League debuted in 1876, the Cincinnati look had become universal and a majority of professional teams were being identified by the color of their socks.
Wright’s team had relocated to Boston in 1871 and had continued to be called the Red Stockings. Charter National League teams also included the Chicago White Stockings, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Louisville Grays, Cincinnati Reds, and Hartford Dark Blues. Other nicknames that originated thanks to the color of hoisery in the late 19th century were the Detroit Tigers (the National League’s Detroit club in the 1880s wore black and yellow striped socks), the St. Louis Cardinals (cardinal red hose), and the Baltimore Orioles who had adopted black and orange striped socks by the 1890s.
The stirrup sock, the predominant look in baseball’s history originated in 1905 and had become baseball’s universal look – from sandlots to major league ballparks, within a few years.
Early in the 1905 season, Cleveland star Nap Lajoie was spiked by a sliding baserunner while covering second base. An infection set in and Lajoie missed most of the campaign with blood poisoning. At the time, since clothing dyes were not colorfast, it was widley believed that Lajoie’s infection had been caused by dye from his stocking seeping into his wound.
Soon after the nature of Lajoie’s injury spread, players began the practice of wearing white “sanitary” socks beneath their baseball socks. The stirrup was developed to allow players to better fit into their cleats.
Joe Jackson (from left), Ty Cobb, and Nap Lajoie wearing the early version of the stirrup sock.
Most of the early stirrups were solid in color, but striping at the calf level became popular by the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals were wearing stripe patterns on their stirrups that would remain in vogue for the remainder of the century.
The styles of baseball hoisery, as well as the other components of the uniformremained fairly static from the early 1920s until the late 1960s.
By 1963, the days of Nap Lajoie were distant memories, and that year Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley broke from baseball tradition by introducing gold sanitaries under green stirrups.
Reggie Jackson wearing the Athletics’ gold sanitary socks in 1969.
Players had pretty much worn their socks the same way for mist of the game’s history but that began to change when Hall of Famer Frank Robinson joined the Orioles in 1966. Robinson popularized the practice of “high cut” socks. He would stretch his socks higher and higher so that more of his sanitaries showed. Robinson even went to the extreme of cutting his socks and adding fabric to extend the stirrups.
Robinson would tape the stirrups to his sanitaries so that they wouldn’t sag. He would put on his pants inside out. When he pulled up his pants, his socks would remain in place.
Frank Robinson sporting his long stirrups.
“You’re not allowed to cut your baseball socks,” Seattle Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, his diary of the 1969 season. “But if you don’t cut your socks, you’re nothing … The higher your stirrups, the cooler you are. Your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot.”
Polyester double knits replaced wool as the fabric of choice in the 1970s and the length of stirrups continued to lengthen. It became fashionable for players to wear a 2-in-1, a sanitary socks with stirrups stitched into them.
Slowly and steadily pants got longer. Many players of the ’70s and ’80s showed just a bit of their 2-in-1s. George Hendrick, who played for several major league teams, went to the extreme of showing no sock with his pants length reaching his shoe top.
During his tenure as general manager of the Chicago White Sox, Larry Himes instituted a dress code that required players to show enough sock so that striping would be visible but the players rebelled and the mandate was soon discontinued. Today, the basic agreement forbids teams from dictating sock length.
By the 1990s, most players wore their long, baggy trousers to their shoe tops with some players like Barry Bonds going to the extreme of strapping their pants to their cleats. But there were a few holdovers. Prominent players of the era who still showed stirrup included George Brett, Darryl Strawberry, Jim Thome, and Chipper Jones.
In the modern era, more and more players have began to show their socks, but stirrups have lost favor to solid-colored baseball socks. Brendan Ryan brought new life to the Cardinals stripes. Curtis Granderson and Adam Jones hiked up their pants in tribute to Negro League pioneers.
Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen often hikes up his pants on Sundays to sport striped socks that he designed himself.
Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, Orioles, and San Francisco Giants introduced striping, Andrew Toles became the first Dodgers player to feature striping on his socks since the 1930s. Jesse Chavez, while with Oakland, reintroduced the 2-in-1.
The problem is that the ankle portion of baseball uniform has become anything but uniform.Some players hide their socks. Others hike their pants to their knees. Some show stripes and other opt for solid hose. Some players feature stirrups and some don’t.
But at least one player doesn’t mind the variety of looks.
“I definitely do notice when guys on the other team wear (high socks),” Tampa Bay shortstop Brad Miller told MLB.com. “They look sharp. There’s a lot of good looks out there.”
Around the majors
The Washington Nationals announced on Twitter on Monday that NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer has a stress fracture on the knuckle of his right ring finger … ESPN reported that the Tampa Bay Rays have agreed to a contract with free agent outfielder Colby Rasmus who hit .206 in 107 games with Houston last year.