Old English D: A Look Back at Tigers Uniforms

The history behind the famous Detroit Tigers’ “D” is fascinating. (via Keith Allison)

In late January, the Detroit Tigers announced an alteration to their iconic home uniforms that, depending on your level of uniform awareness, was either a seismic change or a minor detail but unlikely to be anything in between. The Tigers’ Old English “D” is the second-oldest mark in baseball, trailing only the Athletics’ “A,” which can be traced back to 1866. However, for most of their history, the D on the Tigers’ caps has differed, at times slightly, at others quite drastically, from the D on their jerseys. This offseason, the Tigers decided to put an end to that discrepancy by replacing the D on their jerseys with the one on their caps.

The decision was superficially logical (the D’s should match), but disregarded the history of one of major league baseball’s classic uniforms. Not only had the two D’s never really matched (with the possible exception of the 1929 road uniform, though uniform manufacturing was so inconsistent then that even that could be called into question), but the now-discarded Jersey D (as I’ll call it from here on out) pre-dated the first use of the Cap D by 52 years.

By transferring the Cap D to their chests, the Tigers have removed a version of the D that dated back to 1908 in favor of one that has been in continuous use only since 1968. If anything, the discrepancy between the D’s was more representative of the Tigers’ uniform history than any single D could be, with the possible exception of the now-discarded Jersey D.

Never a single, identifiable mark, the Tigers Old English D has gone through countless permutations over the more than 120 years of team history, as I will illustrate. To do that, however, I’ll need to establish some terms so we’re all speaking the same language.

To be clear, I am not a typography expert, but, in an effort to use proper terminology, I’ve labeled the parts of the Jersey D in the illustration below. The entire rounded side of a D is known as the bowl. The empty space inside the bowl is known as the counter. The vertical lines are called stems. The horizontal lines are called bars. The decorative flourishes coming off the left side of the letter, which are more dramatic than mere serifs, are swashes. The extraneous piece hanging off the top swash is the tail (every Tiger needs a tail), and the small accents coming off the tail are called spurs.

The first major league team to use an Old English “D” as its insignia was not the Tigers, but the National League’s Detroit Wolverines, who played from 1881 to 1888. The Wolverines used the letter only during their first season. Nonetheless, the magenta “D” they placed in the center of their jerseys would be familiar to modern-day fans as it bears significant resemblance to the Jersey D, the only significant differences being that it had one fewer spur and stem, and that the tail did not connect to the top swash.

The current Tigers franchise began play in 1894 as one of the founding members of the Western League, a minor league that would grow into the modern American League in the new century. Per research by Todd Radom, the Tigers first adopted the Old English “D” for their third season, in 1896. The Detroit Free Press, which used a similar font on its masthead at the time, called it “a German letter ‘D’” when describing the team’s new uniforms that February, but rechristened the letter an “Old English ‘D’” just two weeks later. Per Radom, the insignia has been known as such ever since.

That initial D differed in structure from the Jersey D due only to the lack of one spur, but in shape and spirit it differed quite significantly. Not as significantly, however, as the version of the letter which replaced it in 1899. The team photograph of the 1899 Tigers below shows both D’s thanks to two players wearing the previous year’s jerseys. Note that the 1896-98 jersey placed the D on the right side of the chest, the only time in Tigers’ history that the D was on what, from our perspective, is the “wrong” side.

In 1899, the Tigers moved the letter to the left side, where it has remained. However, that year’s version was perhaps the least D-like of any the Tigers have ever worn, at least on their jerseys, as the lack of an upper swash or serif gave the letter a circular shape.

Courtesy of the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection of the Detroit Public Library; insert from Marc Okkonen’s Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century

Per Radom, the Tigers dropped the D after the 1899 season. The Western League renamed itself the American League in 1900, and was recognized as a second major league in 1901. After three years with “Detroit” in block letters across their chest, the 1903 Tigers sported a Roman-style D, largely resembling the one in this sentence, on their left front pocket. In 1904, under new owner William H. Yawkey, the adoptive father of future Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, the Old English D made its triumphant return, replacing that plain D on the road uniforms. In 1905, the D was added to the home uniforms and, for the first time, to the caps, as well.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

From the very beginning, the cap did not match the jersey. That first American League version of the D had one stem, one spur, straight bars spaced far apart, a tail which connected to the lower swash, and a significant curl on that lower swash. The D on the cap, meanwhile, in addition to being rendered in thinner lines, had a curvier tail that did not attach at the bottom, and concave bars. The differences were subtle, but they were there.

In 1908, following the team’s first World Series appearance, team executive Frank Navin bought a significant ownership stake in the team and took over as team president, and the D was updated. The new cap and jersey versions bore a greater similarity. Both added a second stem, a second spur, and a thicker line around the bowl, and placed the bars closer together. However, the cap D retained the concave bars and curl on the lower swash, while the jersey D discarded the curl and made the bars convex. Several seasons later, the two D’s came even closer together when the cap discarded the curl, but the curve of the bars kept the two marks distinct.

Top left: 1904-07 jersey; top center: 1905-07 cap; top right: 1908 jersey; bottom left: 1908 road cap; bottom right: cap D without curl (likely 1912)

The 1908 update was a landmark in Tigers uniform history. The jersey version of the D introduced that year would be worn on a Tigers jersey in all but 14 of the 110 seasons from 1908 to 2017. This was the Jersey D. Though it elongated over time, it would dominate the Tigers’ iconography like no other version of the D. Before being discarded last month, it had appeared on a Tigers uniform for 83 of the last 84 seasons dating back to 1934 and had been worn by every Tigers great since Ty Cobb first put it on at the age of 21.

Left: the Jersey D as worn by Ty Cobb in 1912 or 1913; right: the Jersey D as worn by Miguel Cabrera in 2017

Of the 14 seasons between 1908 and 2017 in which the Tigers did not wear the Jersey D, 10 found them moving away from the Old English D entirely. In 1916 they wore a blocky Roman D. From 1918 to 1920 they wore a D in a style similar to the lettering we now most associate with the Boston Red Sox (which was popular at the time, particularly with the Chicago and New York clubs, but wouldn’t appear on a Red Sox uniform until the 1930’s).

In 1927, the Tigers made their most radical departure, replacing the D with a detailed tiger head that appeared to have been made with more care for the home jerseys than the road versions. From 1930 to 1933, they wore “Detroit” in script on their chests both at home and on the road, and in 1960, they wore a script “Tigers” at home and block “Detroit” on the road.

That leaves four years, but there were actually five in which they wore an alternative version of the Old English D on their jerseys, as they wore the Jersey D at home in 1929, but a variant on the road. Each of those versions attempted to simplify the design in one way or another.

In 1914, they wore a D at home that largely resembled the Jersey D but with one spur and straight bars. Their road D that year, which had one spur, one stem, and slightly concave bars, differed in a more interesting way. That D was unique in Tigers history in that it was the only one in which the stem extended above and below the bowl. In 1915, they wore two different D’s on the road. One was the blocky Roman D which would become their primary mark the following year. The other was an oversized, boxier, single-spur, single-stem D with straight bars.

In 1917, they used a curvier single-spur, single-stem D with straight bars. In 1926, Cobb’s final year with the team, they used a double-spur, single-stem D with concave bars that bore the strongest resemblance to the standard Jersey D of all of the jersey alternatives dating back to 1896. On the road in 1929, they wore a double-spur, single-bar version with a downturned upper swash that was outlined in red, as was the home Jersey D that year.

Other jersey D’s (from left to right): 1914 road, 1915 alternate, 1917, 1925, 1929 road.

As for the caps, the Tigers wore an Old English D on their caps in only one season between 1915, the first year that they wore the blocky Roman D on their caps, and 1920, the last year that they wore the Red Sox-style D on their cap (or, less anachronistically, the Brooklyn-style D). That lone Old English D appeared in 1917 and looked like a single-stem version of the Jersey D, albeit with concave bars. Again, it did not match the jersey D, differing in the number of spurs, the attachment of the tail to the lower swash and the curvature of the swashes.

When the Old English D reappeared on the caps in the 1920’s, it kicked off a period of experimentation that saw the cap D change every year from 1923 to 1929. The Tigers also experimented with color during that period. Orange appeared on a Tigers uniform for the first time in 1927, the year of the tiger-head jerseys, and both the home and road cap D’s were orange that year. The following year, when the tiger head moved to the back of the jerseys, the cap D was white at home and orange on the road, but that, too, lasted just one season. In 1929, they returned to a white or gray crown with a navy D.

Top from left: 1921-23, 1924, 1925; bottom from left: 1926, 1927 (orange), 1928, 1929-30.

In 1931, the Tigers returned to the blocky Roman D, albeit a slightly taller version, in orange in 1931, in white in 1932, and in orange at home and white on the road in 1933. The Old English D returned in 1934, just in time to see the team return to the World Series for the first time in a quarter century, but the experimentation was largely over. The 1934 version resembled the 1928 incarnation. The primary 1935 cap D looked like the blocky, single-bar 1926 version, and that year’s alternate white-crowned cap revived the 1921-23 style, which returned in white on a navy cap in 1936.

From left: 1934, 1935, 1935 alternate, 1936.

Finally, in 1937, the Tigers found a cap D they were willing to stick with for multiple seasons. With one spur, one stem, concave bars, and a tail that connected to the lower swash (at least most of the time), the white 1937 cap D remained as consistent as a cap emblem could in those days through the team’s victory in the 1945 World Series.

From 1947-1951, the Tigers wore an orange D at home and a white one on the road. During that period, they introduced a two-bar cap logo, which was quite handsome but short-lived. By the time they went to an orange D both at home and on the road, in the wake of the January 1952 death of owner Walter Briggs Sr., the lower part of the bowl had come somewhat elongated and the tail had detached from both the bottom and top swashes. That version remained when they returned to white both home and road in 1958, again giving the team consistency throughout the decade.

The current cap logo made its first appearance, albeit in a slightly altered state, in 1960, the year that the team briefly abandoned the Jersey D in favor of a script “Tigers.” Like that home jersey, this new version of the D also represented a significant departure. Unlike every other version of the D to that point, be it on a cap or jersey—and there are, by my count, 20 distinct versions pictured above—the top bend of the 1960 cap D’s bowl was not rounded but beveled like the bottom bend. What’s more, the stems were discarded altogether in favor of a second tail.

That D would only last a couple years, however, and when it returned for good in 1968, just in time for another World Series win, it had acquired a pair of bars connecting the two tails and bit more of a curve to the top swash. In between, the Tigers managed to find one more variant on a single-spur, single-stem D, coming up with a version with curled swashes that most resembled their original cap D from 1905. A version of that D would persist as their batting helmet decal until 1993.

From left: 1960 cap, current cap, mid-’60’s cap, 1960’s-1993 batting helmet.

As for wearing orange on the road, that tradition dates back only to 1972, when the team switched to double-knits and put an oversized orange D with a white outline on their road caps. The road cap D returned to a normal size and shed the outline in 1983. Unfortunately, along with the decision to move the cap D to the jersey this year, the Tigers have enlarged the D on their home and road caps to 1972 proportions, a decision which, to my eye, is even more objectionable than choosing the admittedly elegant Cap D over the more traditional but aesthetically inferior Jersey D.

Through all of that, one thing that remained consistent with regard to the Tigers’ many Old English D’s was that, with the possible exception of those 1929 road uniforms, the D on the cap and the D on the jersey never matched. They did put the Jersey D on their caps for a brief time from 1995 to 1997, but on that occasion they covered most of the letter up with a tiger and wore those caps only on the road with jerseys that had “Detroit” in script on the chest.

Having messed with near-perfection, this season’s sartorial changes could initiate a new era of experimentation with the Tigers’ uniforms. One thing that we know will happen in 2019 is that the Under Armor logo will mar the blank right side of the Tigers’ home jerseys when that company takes over as Major League Baseball’s official uniform provider. Couple that with the team going through a transition phase, on the field and in the front office following the death of long-time owner Mike Ilitch a year ago, and the potential blowback from the team discarding an iconic logo and ruining the best caps in baseball by enlarging the D, and the full history of the Detroit Tigers’ Old English D surely remains unwritten.

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Las Vegas Wildcards
4 years ago

Good stuff. Any plans to look at other traditional teams like the Pirates?

4 years ago

Interesting. I had thought the cap was their classic D but it’s “only” been used 50 seasons. Love the cap, uniforms were just “classic “ but not as iconic as the cap. I think the addition of marketing logos is worst change of all.

Alec Dentonmember
4 years ago

Thank you very much for this. This year’s changes are unfortunate indeed, but at least they gave rise to this article.

4 years ago

Big Tiger fan (my username is Schoolboy!). I think the changes are ridiculous, unnecessary and unwanted. It has been my observation over the years the Ilitch family has little to no respect for history, a great deal of respect for making money. Check out the logo with the Tiger walking through the ‘Olde English’ D. Absurd…but I imagine they sold a lot of ball caps.

Great article.