How merchandising brought back baseball's traditional look

Despite changes all around them, the Dodgers retained classic uniforms in an era of pullovers. - Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

For a uniform historian, 1987 is the year the Los Angeles Dodgers stopped being a holdout and started being a trendsetters; MLB hurried to return to a traditional look.

In 1987, the year before the Los Angeles Dodgers won their fifth championship since moving west, Major League Baseball had a major aesthetic shift. Where colorful and experimental uniforms dominated the two previous decades, those who had gone to a softball look returned to the traditional look the Dodgers and Yankees of MLB had never strayed from. What might be surprising is that this shift coincided with MLB merchandising its uniforms officially for the first time.

It was St. Louis based Rawlings which was given the exclusive rights to manufacture MLB authentic and replica uniforms for sale to the public. The contract was for five years, and the overarching theme of the looks they manufactured was a return to tradition. Houston ditched the tequila sunrise uniforms for a single star on a white background. They kept their elastic waistbands and pullovers, but the White SoxAthleticsMarinersTwins, and Braves all went back to button downs and belt loops.

Texas and Cleveland changed the year before, with San Francisco and San Diego having ditched the softball look earlier in the decade. It's not a topic that much has been written about, outside of Todd Radom's sports design blog, which surprises me. It was the moment that continues to define modern baseball uniform design. Even with color coming back into baseball uniforms, button down jerseys are still the standard. There has to be a reason.

This is where I think Rawlings comes in. The official MLB merchandising contract meant major league baseball uniforms for the first time would feature a manufacturers logo on the sleeve. The uniforms were made in a Licking, Missouri factory which provided as many as 210 sets of uniforms for 25 of MLB's teams.

When Sports Illustrated wrote about the change two years later, they called it a wave of nostalgia, "At present, baseball is caught up in a wave of nostalgic fervor, a postmodernist period, designers might say. Teams are reaching into their pasts for a button here, a belt there, adding pinstripes, abandoning color, rehabilitating long-neglected symbols."

What I find fascinating is that in many cases the nostalgia is not place specific. The Seattle Mariners had never worn a button down having come into the league in the late '70s; they were always a v-neck and elastic belt franchise. Hank Aaron broke records in an Atlanta Braves pullover, but they went back to a design last seen in Milwaukee. Oakland put Athletics back on their uniform, and brought back a white elephant relevant to their origins in Philadelphia but not Oakland.

It might seem trivial, but this came just before the Baltimore Orioles kicked off a wave of retro inspired ballparks. The 90s were an era of brick for brick's sake, and teams paying tribute to past stadiums in cities hundreds of miles away. Throwback uniforms became a thing as baseball tried to rebuild a continuity it lost when many of its franchises moved into multipurpose stadiums.

Likely the change was a happy marriage between owners who wanted to call attention to their franchise again and a uniform manufacturer wanting some (pardon the pun) uniformity throughout the league making it easier to produce all those jerseys on a deadline. The exclusivity contract has jumped around to multiple manufacturers before landing on the current Majestic contract, but standardization of home whites and road greys with buttons and belts has stayed.

Through all of this, the Dodgers retained the same look they have since moving to Los Angeles (occasionally switching up the road jersey). Down the Golden State Freeway the California Angels switched away from pullovers in 1989, getting with the times by going back to older times.

The St. Louis Cardinals, praised for sticking to tradition, never went away from the birds on a bat but were the last team to go back to button-down uniforms; sticking with a pullover and elastic waist until 1992. This was the first year Russell Athletic was the official uniform supplier of MLB.

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The commissioner at the time of this change was Peter Ueberroth, who worked on the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 before taking the MLB job. His big push was merchandising and sponsorships. He also believed strongly in an identifiable brand, telling a reporter after signing Fuji as an official sponsor that the team logo is the most important part of the team.

When Ueberroth was brought on in 1984, MLB's merchandising revenue per club was only $40k per club; a tenth of what the NFL made on merchandising. Ueberroth brought in Joel Rubenstein from the LA Olympic Committee to boost the merchandising efforts. MLB sold $5 million a pop sponsorships to IBM (measuring home run distances), Arby's, and Equitable Life.

Rawlings like Wilson and other manufactures sold uniforms directly to various MLB teams. The new official sponsor deal with Rawlings put the Rawlings logo on every uniform they manufactured and made them the official replica and t-shirt seller, but it now cost Rawlings $1 million per year for that right and they had to provide the uniforms for free.

Ueberroth took merchandising revenue to 150% over 1984 levels, and whereas 21 clubs claimed losses in 1984 that number dropped to four in a year. This is what the owners brought Ueberroth in to do, after he used exclusivity so well in the '84 Olympics.

Thus far the sources point to MLB's marketing efforts at the time being pro-exclusivity. There was also a feeling amongst some players and equipment managers that the traditional duds of the Yankees and Dodgers were more of a "baseball look".

For Rawlings to make money on their $1 million per year investment, they would need to be able to produce uniforms at a cost effective rate and quickly. That explains going away from color. It would also explain wanting MLB to chose one uniform cut and stick with it.

Exactly why nostalgia won out over the more functional pullovers and elastic waists is still somewhat of a mystery, though I think tying it to the greater wave of nostalgia that still defines baseball is a plausible conclusion. Personally, I'm glad what was old became new again.

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