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As baseball’s 143rd season plays on, RL Magazine looks back at one of the sport’s most stylish legacies
century ago, as Babe Ruth, then a 19-year-old phenom, was just beginning his career, baseball was in the midst of a style hitting streak: From about 1910 to 1930, an extended but almost forgotten fashion moment, players entered stadiums clad in dapper team-issued sweaters. The default style was a chunky shawl-collar wool cardigan that was casual yet elegant.
As we salute the Babe—arguably the most famous of these players—on the centennial of his first professional contract (he signed with the Baltimore Orioles’ minor-league team in 1914), it’s worth noting his prominence off the field, as well. His rise coincided with an explosion in mass media, making him one of America’s first true celebrities. Said his teammate Waite Hoyt: “I’ve seen them—kids, men, women, worshippers all—hoping to get his name on a torn, dirty piece of paper or hoping for a grunt of recognition when they said, ‘Hi-ya, Babe.’ He never let them down—not once. He was the greatest crowd-pleaser of them all.”
And his personal fashion choices were on display for the public, too. “Ruth was a smart dresser,” says Roberta Newman, a professor at New York University who has researched the history of baseball in advertising. “He was often depicted in well-cut suits and beautiful fur overcoats.” But, as captured by newsreel, when drink and dissipation caught up with Ruth several years after he had signed with the New York Yankees, it was a shawl-collar sweater that he wore while chopping wood and recuperating on his Massachusetts farm. That look, it seemed, held a special place in his heart.
Today, all-American style is a mainstay for Polo Ralph Lauren, and the shawl-collar sweater is a staple of its spring 2014 collection. Yet many details about the sweaters worn by baseball greats past remain a mystery.
While photographs of Ruth and company in their baseball sweaters are plentiful, the original garments are hard to find. “Very few seem to have survived,” says Paul Lukas, a uniform columnist for ESPN.com who has blogged about baseball sweaters on his website, Uni Watch. “I keep close tabs on the uniform auction scene, and they never come up. You see old jerseys and jackets, but the old sweaters are almost unheard of.”
One company that has toyed with bringing them back is Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co., founded in 1904 as a sporting goods store before expanding into apparel. In 1985, then-owner Peter Capolino began researching vintage baseball uniforms in order to manufacture replicas, and the “throwback jerseys” were soon embraced by the hip-hop world. But Capolino maintained a particular interest in the sweaters, which he calls the “most challenging item to find, research and replicate.” Undaunted, he has built a large photographic archive of baseball sweaters and has traced their rise in popularity to the first decade of the 20th century. “Somewhere around 1905 to 1907, the shawl-collar cardigan began to appear on teams such as the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Athletics,” he says. “There are very few of them to be found today, but they are beautiful and have extraordinary color, weight and construction.”
Ebbetts Field Flannels, founded in 1988, is another company that specializes in replicas of vintage baseball uniforms, and founder Jerry Cohen also has found the shawl-collar cardigans to be quite rare. “They were worn so long ago, and the further back in time you go, the fewer things survive,” he says. “Also, uniforms were not given the importance as keepsakes and historical pieces that they are now, so the perceived value simply wasn’t there.”
The design variation on baseball sweaters is dazzling and even surprising. At one point, the Boston Red Sox had military-inspired double-breasted versions. Other team’s styles had the team letter on the left elbow or lower pocket rather than the chest. Some came with buttoned throat latches and could be fastened all the way up the neck. Still others were belted or featured team insignia, like the two white elephant patches on the sweaters of the 1913 Philadelphia As.
he National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has about a dozen sweaters in its collection, according to senior curator Tom Shieber. Highlights include Ty Cobb’s sweater from the Detroit Tigers, circa 1921; Harry Hooper’s from the Boston Red Sox, circa 1916; and Miller Huggins’ from the New York Yankees, circa 1921. Shieber admits that little is known about the sweaters, but he does add that they may have been worn for multiple seasons. “We know a lot about uniforms but not sweaters, and we tend to lose our way when we have to date photos of them,” he says.
Despite our appreciation for the sweaters historically and sartorially now, they were not immune to the rigors of fashion. By 1927, when the Yankees won the World Series, Ruth’s team was already wearing the rugged type of leather-sleeved wool jacket that would replace the letterman sweater in collegiate athletics. “By 1930, the sweaters disappeared,” Capolino says, “and from then on, it was all warm-up jackets in various forms: wool, leather or a combination.” After their two-decade reign, shawl-collar baseball cardigans had no doubt come to look old-fashioned and were replaced, just as the wool-and-leather jackets were supplanted by the shiny polyester dugout styles of today.
And though we don’t know what look baseball will go for next, Babe Ruth fans, sports collectors and historians alike would love to see a resurgence of the sweaters, even just on an occasional league-wide nostalgia day. Says Lukas, whose website is subtitled “the obsessive study of athletics aesthetics”: “I’m sort of disappointed that with all the throwbacks we see, no one has tried to bring back the old sweaters, which are both beautiful and cool.” Now wouldn’t that be a crowd-pleaser?