Hosiery History


It is with no small degree of concern that Uni Watch has been monitoring the situation unfolding on baseball players’ lower legs.The intersection of pant and sock has long been in flux, but never more so than now, as players have multiple hosiery options and are cuffing their pants anywhere from their feet to their knees. The result, as should be apparent even to the casual observer, is a complete mishmash, ranging from Manny Ramirez’s shoe-tops-covering pants to Orlando Hernandez’s nearly knee-high stockings.

And just how did we arrive at this jumbled state of affairs? The tale begins in baseball’s early days, when ballplayers wore knickers, which ended just below the knee, and colored stockings, which were sometimes striped or two-tone (Fig. 1). But textile dyes weren’t colorfast in those days, and players who got spiked in the shin risked blood poisoning if dye from the torn stocking entered the wound. So around 1910, stockings began featuring an open, stirrup-style bottom and were worn over a white undersock (dubbed a “sani” because it provided a sanitary layer of protection), and baseball stirrups were born. Since stirrups were meant to mimic stockings, the foot openings were narrow so that very little of the sani would show (Fig. 2), and many teams’ stirrups were white toward the bottom so that the lower stirrup would blend with and essentially hide the exposed bit of white sani (Fig. 3).

This style endured until the 1940s, when the sani started gaining prominence. Stirrup openings grew a bit larger, exposing more of the undersock, and the white-bottomed stirrup designs that had minimized the sani’s presence fell out of favor (eight of the 16 big league teams wore them in 1937, but only three in 1944 and none by 1949). Suddenly the white sani wasn’t something to hide—rendered functionally irrelevant by the advent of colorfast dyes, it had become a purely graphic element, providing contrast against the colored stirrup. As stirrup openings slowly increased over the next quarter-century, exposing larger crescents of white (Fig. 4), the stirrup/sani pairing evolved from a practical necessity into one of baseball’s unique visual signatures.

Meanwhile, pants had crept down the shins a few inches, covering some of the upper stirrup (and presaging doom for the calf-level stripe patterns that many stirrups featured). As stirrups were pulled ever higher and pant legs dipped lower, some players began favoring a hosiery style that was little more than a tapered vertical stripe of stirrup against a white sani background (or, for the A’s, a yellow background—Charlie Finley gave his team yellow sanis in 1966). In Ball Four, written in 1969, Jim Bouton reported that some players actually sliced the bottoms of their stirrups and sewed in some extra material so that they could be stretched even higher, exposing as much white as possible. That way, wrote Bouton, “your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot.”

As this passage shows, by this point shin styles had become more a matter of personal taste than of team uniformity. By the late 1980s, there were even two types of stirrups to choose from: the standard kind, which could be stretched high but were still essentially socks with foot openings (although the openings were now very large and the upper stirrup, which encircled the calf, was now usually covered by a pant leg), and a new kind, which were just vertical strips of fabric that looped under the foot and came up the sides of the shins with an elastic band on top to hold them up , without even the pretense of sockishness. This part of the uniform had become decidedly non-uniform.

A third hosiery option appeared around 1990: a white sock with a narrow, colored stripe woven into it—basically a simulated stirrup. But that was just the beginning of what turned out to be the most chaotic decade in lower-leg history. First there was a widespread move toward ankle-level pants, to which a sizable minority of players reacted by hiking their pants back up toward the knee, which in turn brought forth yet another hosiery option, the solid-color sock—essentially a reprise of the original colored stocking.

Which leaves us with a situation that, to Uni Watch’s eye, borders on the anarchic. Consider, for example, the Yankees’ infield, whose lower-leg stylings include ankle-level pants with barely visible stirrups (Tino Martinez), knee-high pants with solid-color socks (Alfonso Soriano), shoe-level pants with no visible hose (Derek Jeter), and knee-high pants with narrow-opening stirrups (Scott Brosius), all of which must set a very confusing example for today’s Little Leaguers. Meanwhile, four teams’ official uniform specs include special stirrup details (stripes for the Cards, Bosox, and Braves, and a little Liberty Bell for the Phillies), but nobody even knows this because everyone’s wearing their pants too low for these elements to show.

So what is to be done? For starters, the low-pants look has got to go. This style not only makes players appear as if they’re wearing footie pajamas, it also dishonors baseball’s hosiery heritage—legwear is an integral part of a team’s color scheme, which is why we have franchises called the White Sox and Red Sox. So let’s begin by bringing pant legs back up to mid-or upper-shin. And what should be exposed by this move—solid-color socks? Stirrups? Uni Watch votes for stirrups, circa 1962 or so—a medium amount of sani showing, with enough calf coverage to allow for striping. But really, any consistent approach would be preferable to the hodgepodge currently polluting our diamonds.

But none of this will happen without guidance from above. Incredibly, Major League Baseball has no official policy on pants or socks (this despite the MLB office’s legendary persnicketiness about things like wristbands). So Uni Watch hereby appeals to Bud Selig and his cronies: Save our uniforms from non-uniformity, and restore the game’s lower-leg dignity, by issuing some basic standards now.