There’s a lot that goes into the aesthetic of a baseball game. From the stadium architecture to the infield grass and dirt, and from the playing equipment to the ballcaps, the game is filled with loads of little details that bring you into a certain time and place. The number one item, though, that visually defines a generation is the uniform. You can see any photo of any baseball game ever and, as long as you can see the uniforms that the players are wearing, you can place the era in which it was taken pretty precisely. You can’t do that with ballparks or equipment – they just don’t change often consistently enough. Plus, nothing takes center stage in a photo as much as the uniforms that the players are wearing.
Uniform watching is such an avid pastime that the incredibly successful blog (and wonderfully written), Uni Watch, is devoted to just that. There’s also a fantastic resource available through the Baseball Hall of Fame website called “Dressed to the Nines“, which details the uniforms worn by every major league since 1900. With the “Dressed to the Nines” database, you can see what the American League teams were wearing during World War II or pull up the progression of the Astros “colorful” uniforms of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. There’s just a lot of great info there.
With so much available over at “Dressed to the Nines”, I thought it might be worthwhile to look for trends in the evolution of uniform design. There’s a neat little trick that one can do with digital images called “averaging the pictures”. When you average a group of photos, you’re effectively placing each photo on top of the others and seeing how they blend together. When the pictures are very similar, the most common elements easily stand out, while the unique elements blend into the back. Averaging a group of photos of people jogging in the park might give you a view of the park with a bunch of blurs on top of it, but averaging a group of photos of people standing in line at the DMV would likely give you distinct clumps of where people stand in line.
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I took the images available on “Dressed to the Nines” and averaged them together by year, giving us the average (or typical) uniform for a given year. Some years work better than others. In 1913, for example, most home uniforms were either blank on the front or they had a big emblem on the left side of the chest. The average uniform for 1913, then, gives you a view of this by highlighting the chest emblem while nearly blurring out the Cubs’ nameplate. By 1974, though, uniforms were a little more varied. The average uniform, then, looks a little less solid, though certain elements like large nameplates and front-facing uniform numbers are pretty obvious.
It’s an interesting look through the uniform history, if I do say so myself, though things didn’t come out as perfectly as I imagined (the 70s and 80s are especially troublesome due to the many, many uniform variants a few teams had). Uniform trends are still plenty visible, from the shift from chest logos to nameplates, and from white to pinstriped to gray uniforms. A small slideshow of the uniform progression can be seen below.