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Fabric of the Game
Sarah Ballard
April 05, 1989
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April 05, 1989

Fabric Of The Game


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Beginning two years ago, baseball uniforms sported a new feature, the word RAWLINGS stitched near the bottom of the right sleeve. The script lettering is only 1½ inches long and half an inch high, but it is a landmark in the history of the game, the first time a manufacturer's name has appeared on the outside of the uniform. In partial payment for that exposure, the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. provides as many as 210 sets of uniforms for each of the major league teams each year of the contract, free of charge.

Bill Smith is Rawlings' chief uniform measurer. In late February he and his assistants hit the spring training camps, marking their charts with sizes and tailoring instructions. At the end of each day they faxed the charts to the Rawlings factory in Licking, Mo., a farm town of 1,272, 120 miles southwest of St. Louis. (The motto of The Licking News is "The only paper in the world that gives a 'lick' about Licking.")

"On Feb. 22 we get our first charts," says Paul Stickley, the Licking plant manager. "Pitchers and catchers." By the end of March, working two shifts a day, six days a week, Stickley and 150 employees have produced over 20,000 garments, no two of them exactly alike. Once the uniforms are shipped, the folks in Licking hold their breath every time the phone rings at the plant. Despite three quality checks, things can go wrong. What was the worst thing that ever happened? Stickley doesn't hesitate. "We spelled Cincinnati wrong."

This year Rawlings supplied 25 teams with uniforms, though some opted to buy part of their uniforms from other manufacturers. One team chose to stick with its longtime supplier, Wilson, for everything: the New York Yankees.

Probably the most revered uniform in baseball history is the obsolete flannel version of the Yankees' home outfit—navy pinstripes on white with the Yankee logo on the left front of the shirt. Even people who hate the Yankees like that uniform. Movies like Pride of the Yankees had something to do with it, but mostly it was Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, baseball's Mount Rushmore.

In the opinion of Yankee equipment manager Nick Priore, who has worked in the New York clubhouse for the last 28 years, nobody ever looked better in a baseball uniform than Mickey Mantle. "His body was just made for it," says Priore. "He wore a 44 shirt and had a 36 waist and a 25 inseam from the day he started playing until the day he retired."

Even those players of today who don't admire the Yankee look admit to a grudging admiration for the Yankees' wisdom in leaving well enough alone. "I don't like the baggy Yankee pinstripe that some people do," says Giants outfielder Brett Butler. "But that's tradition and that's fine. Just like Boston. They're never going to change." But Dwight Gooden of the Mets is a fan. "We look like a bunch of Softball players," he says. "Too many colors. I wish we looked more like the Yankees. Clean pinstripes. A great look."

Clean pinstripes is a great quest for the people who work in an aging factory building on a back street in a rundown section of New Rochelle, N.Y., 10 miles north of Yankee Stadium. The Raleigh Athletic Equipment Corp. cleans the Yankees' uniforms; and while that chore represents only a fraction of the company's business—mostly the reconditioning of athletic equipment for schools in the New York area—pressing the pinstripes is a labor of love. When the team returns from a road trip, Raleigh delivers the home uniforms to the stadium, washed, touch-pressed and repaired, and picks up the used road grays. Most teams don't bother pressing double knits, but the Yankees are not a wash-and-wear sort of organization. "Face it," says Raleigh manager David Sprague. "They have to look professional."

When the Yankees decided to put numbers on the backs of their uniforms in 1929, it was Raleigh that stitched them on. Marc Okkonen knows that. No one in the world knows more about baseball uniforms than Marc Okkonen. Five years ago, Okkonen began documenting the history of major league uniforms in this century (box, page 112). Now he can tell you, for example, that the first graphic symbol of a team nickname in the 20th century was a small red tiger that appeared on the black cap of the Detroit club in 1901. Or, that the Yankees did not invent pinstripes. Okkonen, who moved to upstate New York to be near the Hall of Fame, will tell you that pinstripes first appeared around 1907, and the Boston Doves (later the Braves) were probably the first team to wear them. The Yankees didn't adopt pinstripes until 1912. Okkonen can also tell you that in 1937 Brooklyn turned green: For one season the boys of Dodger blue wore green caps, green sleeves and, of course, green stirrups.

In the beginning, baseball's uniforms could have served just as well for mowing hay as for playing ball: long trousers, wide belts, flannel work shirts. But after 1867, with the meaningful design work having been done, all the uniform needed was 122 years of fiddling. Some of the greatest inventions in history, inventions that have changed the world—the telegraph, the paddle steamer, the cotton gin, to name a few—became obsolete during those 122 years. But the elemental baseball uniform lives on, like the cockroach, perfectly adapted to its environment. Sleeves have been cropped; collars have disappeared; short, baggy flannels have become longer, tighter double knits; red stockings have given way to red shoes. But the game is still baseball, there's no mistaking that.

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