Baseball is a summer game, but from spring training to the World Series, the season takes up over half of the year. Early season games in the spring and late season games in the fall can get chilly, and since the beginning of organized baseball, something to keep you warm has been an essential part of any team’s uniform.
According to Jake Gallagher of GQ, the Harvard University baseball team invented what we now know as the letterman jacket in 1865. A thick pullover sweater was already part of the team’s uniform, but they changed everything by adding the letter “H” to the front. “One day the Harvard Baseball team decided to take their uniforms and sew giant ‘H’’s onto the center of them…With the letter came some rules though; if you were a good enough player, you were allowed to keep your jersey and the letter but if you rode pine all year and never saw the field, you were forced to return your jersey at the end of the season.” The idea caught on and other teams copied the practice, each putting their own unique spin on it with a different font or letter placement.
By the early twentieth century the thick pullover sweater became a cardigan sweater, and the game of baseball had become professional. Ballplayers continued to wear cardigans with their team’s letter or logo on it during games and practices. The cardigan sweater was as integral to the uniform as the baseball cap. Bruce Markusen of Vintage Detroit says “Designed primarily for dugout use, they helped keep players warm, both early and late in the season. They became especially valuable for pitchers, who wanted to avoid cooling down during the game. A few players even worked out with them prior to the game…”
In Boston, the Red Sox and the Braves were no exception and both sported cardigans. In a photo from 1912 of Bill Carrigan, Fred Anderson, Clyde Engle, Jake Stahl, Charley Hall, and baseball fan Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevy, the players are wearing two different sweaters at spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, one with a “B” and another with “Red Sox” on the lower left side.
A photo of Braves player Rube Marquard shows him wearing a sweater while talking with a fan with what appears to be the Braves logo on the upper left.
The cardigan was worn throughout the major leagues during the early twentieth century, but Michael Clair of MLB.com says “With its heyday lasting from the early 1900s to the 1930s, the baseball sweater was…phased out for leather-sleeved coats…”
The leather-sleeved coats that are referred to are more in line with what we picture a “varsity jacket” to look like today. This style can be seen being worn by Red Sox pitcher Tex Hughson pictured at Fenway Park in the early 1940s, and Giants manager Mel Ott talking to Braves manager Billy Southworth at Braves Field.
Not all of the jackets of this era had leather sleeves. According to Marc Okkonen of Baseball Almanac, “By the twenties the sweater colors subsided and were soon giving way to shorter ‘windbreaker’ style jackets. In the twenties and thirties, many of these jackets were combinations of high-grade felt, suedes and colored leathers.” Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy and players Mickey McDermott and Windy McCall wore wool jackets in the late 1940s, and Boston Braves manager Casey Stengel wore a suede jacket while talking to former manager Bill McKechnie.
Satin had been used in baseball as a uniform material for years. In 1947, the Braves introduced satin uniforms as they began playing night games at Braves field. The idea was the uniforms would show up better under the lights.
In 1976, David Beckerman founded his apparel company Starter. He began by making satin jackets for bowling leagues and softball teams, but soon obtained a license from Major League Baseball to begin making jackets with team logos on them to sell to the public. Frank Lidz of Sports Illustrated notes that “players and coaches began wearing Starter-designed team jackets.” The satin Starter jacket became ubiquitous throughout the 80s and early 90s. The Red Sox design was made famous by Cheers characters Coach and Sam Malone who often wore them on the show, and was worn by Roger Clemens when he posed for a baseball card as a member of the Pawtucket Red Sox.
In the mid-nineties and early two-thousands, nylon jackets came into style, and more recently, hooded sweatshirts are preferred by players and coaches looking to stay warm.
There are still nods to the past; Yankees manager Aaron Boone is often seen wearing a leather sleeved wool jacket in the dugout, and in 2019, Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman wore a “vintage” Starter jacket on opening day.
Much of baseball has stayed the same over the past century and a half, but uniforms and fashion is one of the few places where it is constantly changing and evolving. New uniform styles and designs have come and gone for every team over the years, and equipment has evolved to stay with the times. The same can be said for what the players wear in the dugout. Although it is only a small part of the uniform that is worn for a short amount of time, sweaters and jackets have been an important part of the game and have left their mark on the greater fashion world. There is a sweater design still available for purchase today called a “Baseball Cardigan” and Starter jackets have come back into style, with fans wearing them to baseball stadiums across the country. As the game and style evolves, I am sure there is a new design that players will be wearing in the coming years, and I am excited to see what it is.
Clair, Michael, “After the sea of Christmas sweaters, an ode to the forgotten baseball sweater,” MLB.com, December 27, 2014, https://www.mlb.com/cut4/after-the-sea-of-christmas-sweaters-an-ode-to-the-forgotten-baseball-sweater/c-104979512
Gallagher, Jake, “Dropping Knowledge: The Varsity Jacket,” GQ, September 12, 2012, https://www.gq.com/story/dropping-knowledge-the-varsity-jacket
Lidz, Frank, “This Coach Knows Clothes,” Sports Illustrated, March 10, 1997, https://vault.si.com/vault/1997/03/10/this-coach-knows-clothes-david-beckerman-ceo-of-starter-scores-in-sports-apparel-and-high-school-hoops
Lukas, Paul, “Sweater Weather,” Uni-Watch, November 10, 2010, https://uni-watch.com/2010/11/10/sweater-weather/
Markusen, Bruce, “The Story of Ty Cobb’s Wool Sweater,” Vintage Detroit Collection, September 26, 2017, https://www.vintagedetroit.com/blog/2017/09/26/ty-cobb-wool-sweater/
Okkonen, Marc, “Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century,” Baseball Almanac, 2005, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/uniforms.shtml