Ballplayers’ photos capture changing styles, evolving game
By Stephen Wolgast
Like old photographic prints of ordinary Americans, the cabinet cards of 19th-century baseball players were gifts for family and close friends.
These predecessors to baseball cards were 1880s studio portraits, busts of the young men (and their sometimes bushy moustaches) who were creating the beginnings of America’s pastime. About 4 inches by 6½ inches in size, they record optimistic faces and early baseball uniforms, a subject that today intrigues fans and sometimes outrages them.
Baseball cards wouldn’t become commercially available until cigarette companies used them as a promotion when they were re-sized to fit in a pack of smokes. The earlier cabinet cards transmit across the centuries information about the way baseball players looked.
They carry the kind of details that you’ll find in displays in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where comparisons between the old and the new often rely on photographs. You don’t have to go to Cooperstown to see the contrasts, though, because they’re featured in “The Iconic Jersey,” a curatorial collection of photographs showing baseball players and their uniforms from before the Civil War through today.
Historic photos like these, shot as a record of a team or a player, become messages from the past, scoured by historians and amateur sleuths alike for telltale details that no one at the time thought to write down.
While today’s documentary photographer sets out to create a record, posed studio shots in the 19th century showed the sitters, their clothes and rarely anything else. Modern photojournalists, on the other hand, develop a portfolio of a person or a place in time, memorializing not just the decisive moment but the moments that are timeless and the objects that are on the edge of becoming artifacts.
The photos in the book, on the other hand, were taken for contemporary consumption, for friends and later as the daily news. Sometimes survival is all it takes for a photograph to fascinate viewers in the future. So when you see a faded print of a portly Boston pitcher holding a trophy, you’re pleased to discover it’s Cy Young after being honored in 1908.
But there’s more to the photo than the namesake of the famous award. It’s the detail in the uniform.
Why does that matter?
You can answer the question by considering what we hold important. Every kid who’s been to a major league baseball game remembers it. The peanuts and the hot dogs. The scoreboard that’s bigger than your house.
Then there are the players, right in front of you. You’ve memorized their names and numbers, and you fantasize about joining them one day soon, wearing the team jersey.
But you don’t have to be in grade school to wear team gear. Jerseys are hot merch. A replica jersey from the Major League Baseball store runs $135, about the cost of a couple of dress shirts from Brooks Brothers.
Want to wear the real thing? An authentic Royals jersey goes for $320. If that’s not exclusive enough, an authentic Yankees All-Star Game jersey will set you back $465 — add handling and tax and basic shipping (it’s not an online order without the hidden fees) and you could have made a down payment on the lens you’d need to shoot pro ball.
Fans cough up the money anyway because the jersey has a totemic power: Add some imagination, and you’re part of the team.
That jersey Cy Young was wearing? Look into the 113-year-old photo, and your sharp eye notices a detail that’s blog-worthy to uniform aficionados and graphic artists. It’s his collared flannel jersey in gray, left, with its short placket held together by strings instead of buttons. There’s no necktie, as earlier players wore, but the decoration is strikingly modern: a red sock with the word “Boston” stitched into it in gray letters.
The photographer wouldn’t have known it, but by using a red sock, the team didn’t have to spell its nickname. That makes it likely the first example of a team logo, according to the book’s author, Erin R. Corrales-Diaz.
That’s one of the ways any photograph, taken for any reason, leaves messages for the future. And it’s an example of how Corrales-Diaz pairs images and objects to make a connection that speaks to us today.
“The Iconic Jersey” demonstrates how baseball jerseys have rarely stayed the same. Corrales-Diaz, a curator at the Worcester Museum of Art, in Massachusetts, pairs historic photos and objects with recent photos to put jerseys, and the game, in a new perspective.
Baseball has been around since, well, depends on whom you ask. Whether it was the English or the Irish or the Romanians or someone else, the game has traceable roots in the U.S. to 1845. Corrales-Diaz identifies the Knickerbockers, a New York club, as the ones who first decided on April 24, 1849, to wear matching blue pantaloons, white shirts and straw hats. The sports team uniform was born.
When other clubs — and they really were gents’ clubs then, not the for-profit corporate powerhouses owned by billionaires we know today — followed the Knickerbockers, their kits were based on firefighters’ uniforms. To protect them from embers, their wool flannel shirts typically had a bib attached by buttons and adorned with the number or initial letter of the squad they were part of.
The book shows bibs in team photos from the mid-and late 19th century, in portraits showing the players lolling around for the photographer, reclining on one another and sometimes staring out of the frame.
Jump ahead to the days of color TV, color sports sections and the colorful uniforms that took advantage of both media. Old uniforms received a full-color touch-up. Was it an improvement? Corrales-Diaz finds photos that argue both sides.
In one series, Tabitha Soren’s 2014 study of minor league and major league games used tintype, a medium dating to the early days of baseball. The results are confounding: A photo of a runner rounding third in a boxy Red Sox uniform could have been taken at the turn of the last century if the player weren’t Carl Yastrzemski.
Outstanding use of color in a baseball photo goes to Walter Iooss Jr., for his photograph of Tony Scott and Garry Templeton in 1979. The St. Louis Cardinals players are attired in uniforms typical of that decade: colorful polyester double-knits. The Cardinals had switched from their gray on-the-road tats to a light shade they called victory blue.
Scott and Templeton sit in their dugout in Dodgers’ stadium. Behind them, the wall is painted a blue so similar that it’s nearly a match.
They’re at ease. Relaxed. Templeton stretches out his arms and legs and looks right at you. The absence of formality isn’t so different from team portraits of a century earlier, though there’s the layer of red caps and cleats, and red-white-and-blue trim on collars, cuffs and waistband. These pros emanate cool.
As in those old photos, baseball itself isn’t the subject. Iooss is quoted saying that his photograph “has nothing to do with the Cardinals, but the color of that uniform and the color of the dugout in Dodger Stadium.”
Color is one way uniforms are wired into every sports enthusiast’s brain. Another is the instantly recognizable shape and design of a pro jersey.
You’ll see them in pop culture on the rappers OutKast and Jay-Z, in 1998 portraits by Jonathan Mannion. A generation earlier, Elton John shows off his sequined Dodgers uniform to a sold-out crowd at his 1975 concerts in Dodger Stadium in photos by Terry O’Neill.
The baseball look has become part of athleisure, too, as high-end fashion has interpreted it. Gucci, known for its interlocking G logo, paraded down its runway in 2018 a women’s jacket adorned with the Yankees’ interlocking NY symbol.
Mizizi, an American fashion house, created a jersey to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and one to honor Ghana. That one uses kente cloth for the lettering and trim.
The designer Jeremy Scott turned the jersey into a shirt-dress in 2013, with matching cap and thigh-high boots. The dress hearkens back to the uniform of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. For its 11 seasons, starting in 1943, the players wore dresses, sans eye-catching footwear.
All those variations can make a uniform purist scream, but they also show how everyone takes a piece of Americana and makes it their own. Photographers convey the new styles to the public, no matter whether they’re taking pictures of the musicians dressed to perform or players in the game.
When they’re worn, clothes may look exciting or fade into the background. Either way, they don’t last long. Photographs of them create a cultural record, and books like “The Iconic Jersey” put clothes from across on display, showing us the parts they played in the roles we lived.
Stephen Wolgast holds the Knight Chair in audience and community engagement news at the University of Kansas. His email is [email protected]. He has been an NPPA member since 1994.
The Iconic Jersey: Baseball x Fashion
By Erin R. Corrales-Diaz
Giles, 2021, $35
For information: There was a corresponding museum show at the Worcester (Mass.) Museum of Art through Sept. 12, 2021.