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Baseball from the Knee Down

Baseball, from the Knee Down

by Paul Lukas

If you watch a big league baseball game today, you’ll see most of the players wearing their pants down to their shoetops. A handful of players hike their pant cuffs up near their kneecaps, but they’re outliers, eccentrics. For the most part, today’s low-cuffed ballplayers look like they’re wearing footie pajamas. If you’re under 30, that probably looks fine to you; if you’re older, it probably seems, well, not the way baseball is supposed to look.

Either way, it’s a far cry from the situation that held sway in baseball from roughly 1870 through 1980, when players routinely wore their pant legs short enough to expose their colorful stockings. During that 110-year span, a team’s socks were part of its visual identity, every bit as important a component of the uniform as the cap or the jersey insignia. That’s how we got teams with names like the White Sox, the Red Sox, and the Reds (who were originally called the Red Stockings). So when today’s ballplayers go low-cuffed and obscure their legwear, they’re not just dressing differently than their forebears—they’re dishonoring the sport’s hosiery heritage. The earliest baseball uniforms, worn in the late 1840s, featured long trousers. It wasn’t until 1868 that a new professional team from Cincinnati wore the game’s first knickers. The new pants showcased the team’s crimson leggings, which dovetailed nicely with the club’s name: the Red Stockings. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, team president Aaron Champion later recalled that the new look caused quite a stir at the time:

“The showing of the manly leg in varied-colored hose . . . [was] unheard of, and when [team captain] Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent.”

Such concerns notwithstanding, the knickers format caught on quickly, and high cuffs paired with vivid woolen stockings soon became the norm. But baseball was a very different game in those days….

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