At the risk of sounding ghoulish, Uni Watch can’t help but note that the recent deaths of Jack Buck, Darryl Kile, and Ted Williams have occasioned a flurry of activity in one of the most interesting uniform-related realms: the memorialization of those who’ve passed away.
The stylistic diversity of uniform memorials is evident in the approaches now being taken by the Red Sox and the Cardinals. The Bosox are wearing a black armband and a black “9” on their right sleeves to honor Williams, while the Redbirds have a black circle with Kile’s initials and uniform number on one sleeve and a black rectangle with Buck’s initials on the other. Many St. Louis players are also inscribing Kile’s initials on their caps, and pitcher Jason Simontacchi has even worn a black ankle band.
Marc Okkonen, author of the seminal Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century, says this varied approach to honoring the dead is nothing new. “In 1907 the Boston Doves [forerunners of today’s Atlanta Braves] wore a small black ribbon on their jerseys, similar to today’s AIDS ribbons, to honor Cozy Dolan, who’d died that spring. Offhand, the earliest black armband I can think of was for Ray Chapman of the Indians in 1920, but I’m sure there are earlier examples, possibly back into the 1800s.”
The practice of wearing the deceased’s uniform number instead of a black band appears to have begun in 1973, when the Pirates wore Roberto Clemente’s 21 on their sleeves. The Astros reinforced this style by wearing Don Wilson’s 40 in 1975, and armbands and uniform numbers have maintained a rough parity since then, with initials occasionally used for non-players like Buck. Whatever the style, uniform memorials usually last either a full season or the balance of the season in which they’re introduced, but even this can vary: When former Met outfielder Tommie Agee and minor leaguer Brian Cole both died prior to the 2001 season, the Mets wore a sleeve patch with their uniform numbers—but only for one game.
Uniform memorials aren’t unique to baseball, of course—they appear in all the major sports. In the NFL, for example, the Vikings wore a “77” chest patch last year for Korey Stringer, the Giants added a “GBY” chest patch when George Young died last December, and the Bears permanently incorporated George Halas’s initials into their left-sleeve design years ago. As for the oddest uniform tribute, Uni Watch nominates the Expos, who in 2000 wore a black “9” in honor of hockey great Maurice Richard—the only time a team in one sport has memorialized a player in another.