What Not to Wear and Whatnot: One Man’s Wardrobe Report

Bryce Harper’s No. 3 Phillies’ jersey broke the record for sales in the first 24 hours. (via Arturo Pardavila III

Weeks ago, on one of the last nights of winter, I put socks on my feet for the final time until Jack Frost comes barreling in once more. Mind you, I’ll wear ankle socks again, athletic socks, the kind that weekend warriors traditionally wear when reanimating the withered strands of glory-days DNA, but these were dress socks, the kind artsy urbanites wear when flaunting their fashion bona fides. Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because these socks–these casual dress socks–have baseball written all over ’em.

Indeed, aside from their service as the vestiary valedictions to the cold and flu season, the most notable thing about these socks is that they feature numerous images of good old-fashioned baseballs, woven in red-and-white fabric on a backdrop of dark royal blue. Also woven on each sock are pairs of baseball bats arranged in crisscross patterns. Accordingly, the socks are a part–though just a size-nine part–of a larger phenomenon.

From toe to head, baseball apparel is big business. According to something I just Googled, revenues from global sales of baseball apparel are expected to surpass $500 million annually by the end of 2026. Granted, that figure includes jerseys for teams sponsored by the likes of Chico’s Bail Bonds, but still, that’s a lot of moolah directed expressly at national pastime attire.

In terms of MLB-specific apparel, sheesh, just take a look around. On the baseball website Hardball Talk, one ad is hawking a “Men’s New Era Red/Blue Philadelphia Phillies 2019 Spring Training Low Profile 59FIFTY Fitted Hat” for $39.99. If you’re in the market for a Phillies cap for under 40 bucks, you have found it. Meanwhile, at the CBS website Eye On Baseball, the CBS Sports Shop is featuring (at the time of this writing) a range of “Spring Training Headwear,” “Spring Training T-shirts,” and “Spring Training Jerseys,” this in the apparent presumption that in-season apparel is insufficient proof of a demonstrable allegiance to the local nine.

Speaking of team allegiance: above the Sports Shop link, the same website is featuring a story about free agent signee Bryce Harper’s recent setting of a textile-related record. “His No. 3 Phillies jersey became the top-selling jersey of all time for any player in any sport within 24 hours of launch,” it informs us.

Of course, Harper and his Phils aren’t the only drivers of big league merch. In the middle innings of the March 4 spring training game between the Red Sox and Mets, I counted 48 people sitting in full televised view behind home plate. Of those, 31 were visibly wearing team-specific apparel, either caps or shirts or both. (As for socks, or even underwear, I really can’t say.) You want an itemized count? Well, there were five Mets jerseys, three Mets shirts, one Mets cap and three Mets shirt/cap combos, plus nine Sox caps, six Sox shirts and a pair of Sox cap/jersey combos. That’s 29. The other two? The other two were a Yankees cap and a Yankees jersey. You cannot escape New York.

It’s true the Sox are the defending champs and the Mets are the Mets, New York-born and -bred, so it stands to reason their colors and logos would be well represented even at a spring training game. What about lower-profile teams? Well, in the early innings of the March 4 Angels-White Sox game, 28 of the 50 people in full view behind home plate wore some identifying item of team-related apparel, be it on the head or torso or both.

This phenomenon–this dressing of oneself in licensed team apparel, even if it is poorly fitted and awkwardly modeled–is a relatively recent development and a far departure from the sartorial choices of even a generation back, and even in the postseason. Take a gander at the L.A. crowd at Game One of the 1978 World Series, staged between the Dodgers and the Yankees. Nope, there’s not a single Dodgers shirt among them, and not one Yankees cap. What you see on the men, astoundingly, as if this were circa 1955, are suit jackets and neckties. If you want to cite the dark colors as Yankees-themed, that is your prerogative.

Okay, so how about the 1988 World Series? As Kirk Gibson comes limping toward the plate for his soon-to-be-immortal pinch-hitting turn versus Dennis Eckersley in Game One, the camera pans the home crowd. Study it closely. Sure, you see a few pennants in the mix, and maybe–maybe–a couple caps, but the shirts? Heck, everybody’s wearing a T-shirt or collared shirt, as if they’ve all just ambled in from the nearest municipal golf course.

“Look at the crowd on its feet,” color commentator Joe Garagiola says to play-by-play man Vin Scully after Gibby fouls off Eckersley’s first offering.

Look, indeed. The camera is now showing a different section of the home crowd, behind the first-base dugout. Nobody that I can see is wearing anything that says Dodgers, let alone A’s. One dude is wearing a plaid shirt, as if to go apple picking. Another has a Polo-style shirt on, as though, after the game, he has plans to cruise Rodeo Drive with a young Rob Lowe. Still another is wearing his sky-blue sweater tied loosely beneath his neck, the very image of an ‘80s yachtsman. See you at the regatta, Sterling!

And how about the ‘98 World Series? As Padres leadoff man Quilvio Veras steps to the plate to open Game One at Yankee Stadium, not a single Yankees cap or shirt–let alone a Padres cap or shirt, but whatever–is visible behind home plate. And remember, those juggernaut Yanks had posted 114 regular season wins, not to mention a 7-2 mark in the AL playoffs. Now, fast-forward to the Indians-Padres spring training game on March 4, 2019, and what do you see? In addition to a lot of Indians apparel, you see three Padres shirts and two Padres jerseys. Those same Padres won 66 games a season ago.

Suffice it to say today’s partisan fans are more conspicuously identifiable than ever, even at–or especially at–spring training, where team allegiance is often measured in an 80-year-old retiree’s devotion to a ninth-inning at-bat by a 26-year-old scrub wearing No. 77. Of course, this level of sectarian passion is hardly shocking; local sports-talk radio is a hundred heart attacks waiting to happen. It just took apparel manufacturers a while to catch on, or, more fittingly, a while to exploit the homo sapiens brain.

In their 2016 book, This Is Your Brain On Sports, writers L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers point out that, when watching sports, and particularly when watching our favored squad take the lead in a tight contest, the brain’s ventral striatum goes bonkers, gorging itself on feel-good cortical inputs. What better way to blandish one’s own gray matter, then, than to place a Spring Training Low Profile 59FIFTY Fitted Hat upon the scalp that crowns it?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

***

My own history with partisan apparel–not that you asked–is woefully slim and profoundly bittersweet, with less accent on the sweet than on the bitter.

When I was a lad, in Dallas, nobody wore Rangers gear. And I mean nobody. I was too young to understand the reasons, but by now they’re clear. The Rangers were still pretty new, and relentlessly mediocre, and played in a stadium that had all the charm of a strip mall anchored by a pharmacy.

Worse, at least from the perspective of any business-school dropout who happened to be selling unlicensed Rangers caps out of the trunk of his Chevy Nova, was that the local nine had to contend with both the myth and the truth of the local 11–that is, the mighty Dallas Cowboys. Their hold on local soul and psyche could not have been overstated, not even by Yankee-type observers who somehow regarded (and still regard) rabid baseball fandom as romantic and yet rabid football fandom as backward and brutish, the emotional province of slack-jawed rubes. Those rubes, such as we were, did wear Dallas Cowboys apparel, and lots of it: t-shirts, caps, even “toboggans,” as we called ’em, known otherwise as the sort of knit cap one might wear on a cold autumn day–football weather…and playoff time.

On a hot summer day, when I was 10, I packed one of those Cowboys T-shirts in a suitcase for my baseball team’s trip to the national championship tournament. There, in a room at the Holiday Inn, we gathered with the kids from the Puerto Rico team for a mutual exchange of T-shirts. Veterans of state and regional tourneys, but newcomers to the natties, we had never entered such a barter, but, by way of gestural translation, the Puerto Rico kids made it seem the thing to do.

Anxious, I introduced my Cowboys cotton T. Eyes went wide. One kid quickly nodded and thrust a white T-shirt with red lettering toward me. The exchange was nigh. I handed him my Cowboys shirt and took from him a T-shirt that, I can still remember, included the word Flores.

It was done, the trade complete, and if any GM had ever experienced trader’s remorse in the immediate aftermath of a ballsy deal, I now knew the feeling. Suddenly, my coveted Cowboys T-shirt was in the hands of a kid who, earlier that day, had been my opponent, one who stood between me and the trophy I wanted on my shelf.

Still, in the weeks and months to come, I would proudly wear my Flores T-shirt to school and on weekends, eager to share with anyone who asked–anyone who seemed remotely curious about the Flores–the tale of its acquisition. What’s more, I often imagined, with all the romance a 10-year-old boy could muster, an identically aged kid striding down the streets of San Juan, so proud of his Cowboys T-shirt and eager to share with anyone who asked the tale of its acquisition.

The symmetry, even if unseen, seemed potent. It has not waned.

Three kids from that Puerto Rico team would play in the big leagues, one of them quite well and for a very long time. But as time passed, I could never be certain if my Cowboys shirt had ended up with that future All-Star (or even with one of the two lesser players.) Today, wherever he is, I like to think it’s still in his drawer, alongside one, or perhaps all, of his old Rangers jerseys.

Me? I’ve never had a Rangers jersey. I did own three Rangers T-shirts.

Note the past tense. It’s key.

All were given to me, as gifts, in the time of the second ascendancy, the Rangers campaigns of 2010 and 2011, which, at the time, seemed to hold far more promise than did the first ascendancy, 1996-1999, when the Rangers won three AL West titles but fell to the juggernaut Yanks by a combined nine games to one across three divisional series. You cannot escape New York.

I wore one of those shirts, my favorite, to Game Five of the 2011 World Series. Sitting a few rows behind home plate, and flanked by similarly appareled partisans, I tested the limits of the gray T’s cotton blend by leaping, twisting, dancing, high-fiving, flexing (yeah, flexing) and, in sum, gesticulating madly as the Rangers came from behind to grab the win.

My ventral striatum, needless to say, had gone all kinds of bonkers.

Upon leaving the stadium that night, still delirious and still in spiritual flex, I vowed to keep that T-shirt for all time, to wear it as often as the wash would allow. Less than a year later, after Texas had blown a season-long division lead to lose the AL West title to the A’s on the final day of the 2012 season, I snatched that shirt from my closet and, with the two others, tossed it in the trash.

***

I own one other pair of baseball socks, always worn, like the other, with the sort of pants-and-shoes ensemble that precedes the time of grass and sun. This pair features a reproduction of a Norman Rockwell painting titled 100th Year of Baseball. Having first appeared on the cover of a 1939 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, the image portrays a 19th-century pitcher in mid-windup, his left leg bent high at his chest. Crouching behind him and peering beneath his upraised leg is an umpire. Most notable about this umpire, aside from the fact that he is behind the pitcher and not behind the plate, is that he is wearing a bowler hat and smoking a cigar. For good measure, he is wearing with his dark suit a green tie and green dress socks.

My own dress socks, utterly Rockwellian, are in truth a lie. First, the very genesis of the image is founded on a disproven myth: that Abner Doubleday, he of the thick mustache and Union command, invented the American Pastime. Indeed, the centennial it celebrates–baseball’s supposed founding in 1839–is no centennial at all. Instead, it commemorates a convenient date selected by the Mills Commission in 1907, as if to announce that jazz was invented on, oh, let’s say a Tuesday around 6 p.m.

The other aspect of the false narrative evinced by the image, notwithstanding the fact that the pitcher is wearing a glove that hadn’t been invented yet, is less circumstantial than suggestive. This is to say that like most Rockwell images, this one traffics in the kind of sepia-toned sentimentality that can rob a moment of its tension and replace it with the soothing reassurance that each competition is little but a collection of universal quirks and timeless frailties and always without consequence, always without the kind of crushing defeat that the ventral striatum construes as a death in the family.

In truth, baseball is less a sum of eccentricities, less an assemblage of the soon-to-be-nostalgic stuff we all have wonderfully in common, than it is a year-round theater of win or go home. Today’s apparel, all partisan hues and sectarian logos, is proof. Nowhere, aside from the occasional cotton T that announces Baseball Is Life, do you see shirts that merely celebrate the pastime. Nobody, or almost nobody, is wearing a cap that honors the unbiased side of baseball, the one that gives space to every slanted side.

I write “almost nobody” for a reason. Last year, in London, I saw a young woman wearing a cap decorated only with the image of a baseball. That’s it: a baseball. I wanted to give her a hug. Amid all the LA and NY caps–even in England, you cannot escape New York–here was a human who, by the looks of it, cheered less for the champs or the underdogs than for the game they share.

I envied her ecumenical outlook, if that’s really what it was, just as I envy all those baseball writers who either see beyond their biases or, better yet, have left them behind in favor of a broader perspective and a more detailed view, more precise, focused less on the emotional outcome than on the workaday systems that produce it. I love baseball. I love every cliche it might deliver, the sights and smells and sounds. I love it so much that whenever Jack Frost is fading, I wear my baseball socks as a signal–more to myself than to anyone else–that the coldness is conceding to spring.

Still, once spring has sprung, I inevitably shift my focus. Slowly at first, and then with jerkier turns of the head, I move from Red Sox-Mets, or Indians-Padres, to the team that compelled me to dump its odious apparel. Should the Rangers shock the world this year and somehow win the AL West, I will still be shirtless. Come playoff time, I won’t have a thing to wear. My ventral striatum has suffered enough, thank you, and I will not tempt its umpteenth collapse with a premature purchase. Only when the Rangers win it all–and that “when” is a big “if”–will I re-proclaim my affinity by buying some team-specific duds. Until then, I’ve always got my nonpartisan socks.

Oh, I’ve also got my Rangers beer snifter. Break glass in case of emergency.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Jimmember
3 years ago

Hey John, nice writing. Tell us who the 3 Puerto Ricans were.

Dennis Bedard
3 years ago

So where is the origin of “adults acting like adolescents” in the sport memorabilia/apparel business? I trace it back to 1970 when the NFL started marketing those grey “Property Of ___________” t shirt ads in the back of magazines. The business soon spread to woolen caps and license plate trim. But where in the spectrum of sports history did grown men discard their suits and ties for the more sartorially splendid (or is it garish?) home team jerseys? The missing link is Ronald Reagan. He threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game wearing their warm up jacket. It was all downhill (or uphill?) from there.

hopbittersmember
3 years ago

I’d been to a few major and minor league games as kid/teen and managed to come away with absolutely nothing. The first team gear I bought was a sweatshirt for Mrs. Bitters, but that was mostly because it was a painfully cold, windy, and somewhat wet day at Yankee Stadium (you cannot escape New York *). That was Clemens’ 300th win/4000th strikeout game…2002? 3? Since then, I’ve acquired a few shirts, a sweatshirt for myself, and some caps. So I guess that opened the floodgates and we can all blame Clemens and NY weather.

* What would Snake Plissken say?