Socks appeal: The colorful history of baseball hosery

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

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.

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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.

Curtis Granderson rounds first after hitting a single

Curtis Granderson

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.

 

Louisville Slugger: the making of an American icon

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
– Babe Ruth

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Since Babe Ruth was bigger than life, the 129-foot, 68,000-pound Ruth model replica bat – the “Largest Bat in the World” – that is displayed next to the entrance of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a fitting tribute to the legendary slugger.

The museum, which is located in downtown Louisville and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, is a slice of Americana, a candid look at the manufacturing process of an iconic product, and a celebration of a batter’s essential tool.

In 2015, a record 314,149 attended the museum, making it one of Louisville’s most popular attractions.

The Hillerich Company, which remains family owned, opened as a woodworking shop in 1855. For much of its first three decades, the company specialized in manufacturing an array of products like bedposts, table legs, stair railings, porch columns, and butter churns.

All of that changed in July, 1884.
Photo of Pete Browning
John “Bud” Hillerich, the 17-year-old son of company founder J. Frederick Hillerich was an avid baseball player and fan who was a regular at Eclipse Park – the home of the American Association’s Louisville Eclipse. The younger Hillerich developed a friendship with Eclipse star Pete Browning (right) – AKA “The Louisville Slugger.” Browning, who was mired in a hitting slump, broke his bat one afternoon.

The broken bat was a traumatic event for the eccentric Browning, a three-time American Association batting champion. It’s likely that no hitter prior to Ted Williams obsessed over bats as much as Browning. The slugger, who liked to swing a mammoth club that was 37 inches long and weighed 48 ounces, named each of his bats – often times after biblical figures. He spoke to his bats and, believing each one only contained only a certain number of hits, retired them on a regular basis.

After the game, Bud Hillerich invited Browning to his father’s shop and handcrafted him a replacement bat to the slugger’s exact specifications. The next day, Browning collected three hits. His teammates immediately placed bat orders. The Louisville Slugger was born.

J.F. Hillerich didn’t see much of a future for his company in bats but his son was persistent. The reputation of the bats began to spread throughout baseball and a steady stream of visiting players continued to visit the shop and place orders. By the time Bud assumed leadership of the company in 1897, the Louisville Slugger was its primary product.

In 1905, eight-time National League batting champion Honus Wagner signed a first-of-its-kind exclusive endorsement deal with Louisville Slugger and by 1923, the company which by then was known as Hillerich and Bradsby, was the nation’s top-selling bat manufacturer.

Upon entrance to the museum, visitors are greeted by an impressive wall display featuring the autographs of thousands of players, past and present, who had their signatures burned into Louisville Sluggers – ranging from Wagner to present day stars like Joey Votto, Curtis Granderson, and Dustin Pedroia. According to the display, over 80 percent of batters elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame used Louisville Sluggers.

On display in the museum gallery are models of Ruth’s 42-ounce bat in which he carved notches for each of his 60 home runs in 1927; the 36-inch bat Joe DiMaggio swung during his famous 56-game hitting streak in 1941, a bat Williams used when he became the last man to hit over .400, in ’41; and the P72 model bat that was used throughout the Hall of Fame careers of legends like Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., and Derek Jeter. There are life-size mannequins of Ruth, Williams, Jeter, and Jackie Robinson spread through the center of the room.

Visitors are given the opportunity to swing a Louisville Slugger themselves in on-site batting cages. Among the bats available for use are replicas of the models used by Browning, Ruth, Williams, and Mickey Mantle. The pitching machines can be geared to slower speeds for novices including children ages 6 and older or, for the courageous, can be jacked up to reach speeds up to 90 MPH.

But the main attraction is the 30-minute factory tour which gives guests a thorough demonstration of how more than 1.8 million bats a year are made. And it’s no demo. The sight of flying wood chips, the smell of sawdust and the sounds of machinery upon entry makes it clear that real work is being done.

Typically, the factory produces 3,000 full-sized bats per day. In peak production during spring training, about 5,000 bats are manufactured.
Our family’s tour last November, which concluded with the presentation of a souvenir mini bat to each visitor, included roughly a dozen people. Our guide, Larry, was friendly, informative, and paused regularly to answer our questions.

Larry gave us an overview of the company’s history and of the bat-making process. We then made several stops along the production line.
We were shown how bats were handcrafted prior to the computer age. A block of wood called a billet, which matched the weight and length of the model requested, was guided onto a lathe machine by a highly-skilled craftsman and carved into a bat. A model bat was placed on a rack above and behind the lathe. The craftsman then revolved the billet on the lathe, sanding and shaving it until it was an exact replica of the model.

Each bat was custom made to the exact specifications of each player. Ruth, for example, demanded that each of his bats include pin knots in the barrels. Williams would visit the factory each offseason to personally oversee the production of his bats.

The heaviest bat – 48 ounces – was ordered by Edd Roush, a Cincinnati Reds star a century ago. The lightest bats on record – 30 ounces – were ordered by 1950 AL batting champion Billy Goodman and 1975-76 NL MVP Joe Morgan. The longest bat – 38 inches – was brandished by 1920’s and 30s slugger Al Simmons. The shortest Louisville Slugger used by a big leaguer was owned by late 19th and early 20th century star Willie Keeler.

On our next stop on the line, we witnessed the branding process that goes into every Louisville Slugger. Each ash bat is branded with the familiar Louisville Slugger trademark – one-quarter of a turn from the sweet spot.

Each player’s model is also branded with his signature, taken directly from his endorsement contract. The sizzle of the branding process is audible and the smell of burning ash permeates the room.

On the harder maple bats, branding decals are applied.

After branding, some bats are dipped into a staining vat (including the pink models many major leaguers use on Mother’s Day) and all of the clubs are varnished. They are inspected. Bats that pass inspection are packed and shipped. Bats that don’t pass muster are repurposed for souvenir use.

Shavings from the bat production are sold to area farmers and are primarily used as livestock bedding.

We were then shown how contemporary bats are made. Williams pioneered and modern players like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn popularized the theory that how heavy a bat was wasn’t as important as how fast a batter could swing it. Therefore today’s batters are lighter than ones that were used in the old days. Today’s players have more than 8,000 variations to choose from but they typically order from a list of approximately 300 popular models.

The bat specifications for each player contracted by Louisville Slugger are entered into a computer and with a touch of a button, bats are produced from billets. Players are shipped bats, usually in sets of 12, several times throughout the season and some players’ specifications change as the year progresses. Most players prefer a lighter bat later in the year as the hot summer months take their toll. A typical major league batter will order 120 bats during the course of a season.

A common specification of modern players is a cupped bat in which a portion of the top of the bat is carved out. This specification, according to our guide, was invented by Chicago Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal during an MLB All-Star tour of Japan following the 1973 season and quickly caught on with other players. Cardenal’s model, the C271, remains the company’s most popular today.

Bats have traditionally been made from northern white ash cultivated from company owned forests – about 6,500 acres – in New York state and Pennsylvania, but surprisingly, roughly 80 percent of the bats used by current major leaguers under contract by Louisville Slugger use maple.

The maple bats, which were popularized by Barry Bonds, are a harder wood but tend to shatter easier than ash models. In the past, hickory was a popular wood for bats but today the material is deemed to be too heavy.

The featured product of the museum’s gift shop is the customized bat which must be pre-ordered. The shop also features an array of souvenir bats (world championship Cubs bats were a hot item during our visit), replica bats of legends like Ruth and Williams and of current stars like Granderson and Evan Longoria, and usual gift shop fare like postcards, T-shirts, and coffee mugs.

The museum is located at 800 W. Main Street in Louisville. Admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors 60 and older, $8 for children ages 6-12, and free for children 5 and younger. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.