Largely overlooked amid baseball’s flurry of uniform revisions, the umpires have new unis this season too, thanks to the merger of the American and National League umpiring staffs. The new design is innocuous enough, but stripping the leagues of their separate umpire uniforms—and especially replacing the old “AL” and “NL” caps with an all-purpose “MLB” cap—strikes Uni Watch as a minor tragedy, another diminution of the leagues’ distinct identities.
Still, umpire attire has come a long way since the mid 1800s, when umps wore top hats and ascots. The first official umpire uniform—a blue suit, white shirt, and necktie—was introduced in 1882 by the old American Association. The National League followed in 1883, as did the American League when it debuted in 1901. Each league has had its quirks over the years (AL umps wore white flannels on holidays in 1913; NL umps were permitted to work in shirtsleeves during a 1936 heat wave), but beginning in the late 1920s the leagues became defined primarily by their chest protectors: Influential NL ump Bill Klem urged his senior-circuit colleagues to wear the catcher-style “inside” protector, while his AL counterpart Thomas Connolly favored the inflatable “outside” protector. The inside/outside schism didn’t begin to close until 1964, when the Umpire Development Program was created to streamline the training of future umps. Staffed primarily by former NL umpires who encouraged the inside style, the program spelled doom for the outside protector, whose era ended with the 1985 retirement of Jerry Neudecker—the AL’s last outside holdout.
Sartorially speaking, the blue suit and necktie held sway in both leagues until the 1970s, when the increasing laxity of mainstream fashions led to such unseemly umpiring developments as the maroon sport coat, the white turtleneck, and the nylon windbreaker (and for the increasing number of portly umps, the XXXXXL shirt). A flurry of less garish modifications, including uniform numbers on sleeves and league insignia on chest pockets, also proliferated around this time. Further tinkering has gone on over recent decades and continues today—just last month Ed Rapuano became the first umpire to wear a hockey-style face mask, which catchers have been using for several years.
None of this qualifies as history’s most significant umpiring fashion statement, however. For that, Uni Watch nominates the optical stylings of one Eddie Rommel, who in 1956 confirmed every fan’s worst suspicion: He was the first umpire to wear eyeglasses.