Uni Watch was enjoying a Detroit Tigers game a few years back when an acquaintance observed, “Look at Cecil Fielder—his waistline’s so big that his pants have about a dozen belt loops!” But closer inspection revealed that all of the Tigers had about a dozen belt loops—that was (and still is) the team’s pants style. And so began Uni Watch’s obsession with one of baseball’s least-noticed uniform elements.
The earliest baseball trousers had belts, but they were styled in a manner that would seem positively dweebish today: A belt loop was placed dead-center on the waistline, just below the navel, and belt buckles were worn off to one side, sometimes almost on the hip. The first team to replace the center loop with a centered buckle appears to have been the 1919 Chicago Cubs, although centered buckles didn’t become universal until 1940 (the Yankees were the last holdouts).
Belt formats remained relatively constant until 1970, when the Pirates introduced the first double-knit uniform, complete with an elasticized, garishly striped, snap-closure waistband instead of a belt. The style caught on quickly: By 1973, 16 of baseball’s 24 teams had gone beltless; by 1980, the count was 20 out of 26 (Uni Watch hereby salutes the Yankees, Mets, Expos, Phillies, and Dodgers, the only teams to resist the trend throughout this period). Although most teams began switching back to the belted look in the 1980s, the elastic waistband wasn’t finally expunged from the game until 1993, when the Reds became the last team to rejoin the belted fold.
All 30 major league clubs currently wear belts, but belt-loop styles vary. Some teams, like the Yankees and Mets, use wide loops that essentially serve as a channel encasing most of the belt; others, like the Tigers and Royals, use lots of narrow loops, with more of the belt visible; and the Braves use their loops as a design element, outlining them with red and blue piping. Meanwhile, the spirit of Cecil Fielder—or at least his physique—lives on in players like Tony Gwynn, David Wells, Matt Stairs, and of course Rich “El Guapo” Garces, whose, um, robust profiles make Uni Watch all the more grateful that the elastic waistband’s era has passed.