Uniforms of the past making a comeback

Designers reflect on their classic uniforms given second life

March 3rd, 2021
Tom Forget / MLB.com

Ask someone from 40 years ago what they expected from this decade, and they might say self-driving cars, robotic household helpers and baseball uniforms that look like something Captain Picard would wear while captaining the USS Enterprise.

In fact, 2021 was that far-off year that teams imagined when they pulled on their Turn Ahead the Clock jerseys in 1999. They expected giant logos, a lack of sleeves and a team on Mercury:

Instead, if you gaze across the baseball landscape today, you'll see that the uniforms still act like a time machine -- only this one goes backward.

After decades of experimenting with a variety of navy blue designs, the Padres went back to the brown last year.

After rocking the bright yellow tops and black pants of the late ‘70s as a Sunday alternate, the Pirates looked to the Bonds-era early '90s when they unveiled new jerseys featuring the distinctive “Pittsburgh” script last year.

"Nostalgia moves in 25-year waves, basically," noted graphic designer and respected purveyor of good uniform taste Todd Radom said. "So, you've got a generation of people now with purchasing power and all of the responsibilities of adulthood, who grew up on the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies and the looks of the early '90s."

Radom knows this work well. He gave the Angels their current uniforms -- which debuted the year they won the franchise's lone World Series. He also designed the logo and uniforms the Brewers wore in the mid-90s, watching the team move on to another uniform design before they fully embraced the classic ball-in-glove last season. (They had been using it as an alternate cap since 2006.)

"When the Brewers wanted to move towards something new in the early '90s -- the ball and glove was seen to be very dated at that time and associated with a losing franchise. And those are just facts," Radom said. "But here's the pull of nostalgia: People love that logo, for many good reasons. Because it was Milwaukee -- just plain and simple. It said Milwaukee. It looked like nobody else."

But there is a lesson in all this: You can bring back the older looks, but you have to change them, update them for modern audiences. The Padres brought back brown, but with brand new uniforms and logos. The Brewers now rock darker shades of blue and yellow than when the team first began wearing Tom Meindel's design.

"I always say you need to tread light," Radom said. "Some franchises have license to just tear it down to the ground and build a whole new structure. And these are teams that are generally newer franchises perhaps, or clubs that have been less successful on the field of play."

The Astros did their own remixing when, after decades of experimentation, they returned to the orange-and-blue designs of the 1970s in 2013 -- adding in plenty of splashes of "Tequila Sunrise."

At first considered gauche, outlandish and definitely not fit for baseball, the stripes that debuted in 1975 are now regarded as cool and desired. College and amateur teams up and down the country wear variations of it, and Houston has practically claimed it as the city flag.

It's a shocking reaction to the creator, Jack Amuny, a freelance designer who was tabbed by advertising firm McCann Erickson (one of the earliest cases of a large firm doing sports design work) to create the uniform. He never publicly broadcast his role in the creation for fear of the response, either -- that fact only emerging after uniform expert Paul Lukas discovered it.

"I played pick-up basketball at the YMCA with [Astros players Larry] Dierker, [John] Bateman, [and Dave] Giusti at the time, but I never told them I designed it!" Amuny wrote in an email to MLB.com.

Given simple instructions to be bright and colorful and to "do something different," Amuny dove in. He laid out strips of colored paper that matched the printing inks atop the uniform to create the look he wanted.

"It was amazing how smooth the job went," Amuny wrote. "They loved it; the only change they made was moving the star from the center to the right. My designs are symmetrical -- I’m in the center of the page and everything else lines up."

Amuny's original Astros design laid out with strips of paper. (Courtesy Jack Amuny)

While you won't see Amuny's original design on the field, you will see notes of the stripes in Spring Training caps, in socks players can pull high, and under the arms of their alternate jerseys.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this design would become so popular!" Amuny wrote. "It is very gratifying to do a successful job, and for it to be accepted by so many people. So now when people question me about it, I’m proud to tell them I did it. It is very humbling to see what has happened to what was a regular design job in the beginning."

When the Blue Jays joined the American League in 1977, they also got design help from an outside firm. Only this time, it was the Labatt Brewing Company's work -- which makes sense as the brewer held a 45 percent stake in the expansion team. The task of creating the look of the Jays fell to Richard Walker, who was the brand's head of creative services.

How, exactly, he got the gig is a little funnier: He had sat next to the guy who had done the design for the Montreal Expos, which was good enough to put him in charge of the project.

(Walker also designed the Toronto Giants logos when it appeared San Francisco was going to move to Toronto, but that's a story for another day.)

"We wanted something unique, uniquely Canadian, uniquely Toronto," Walker said. "The Canadian aspect is obvious -- we incorporated a maple leaf into it. The type face was a unique typeface, so it was recognizable without even having the words Toronto or Blue or Jays associated with it."

This was still when everything was done by hand, so every change had to be cut out, traced, or drawn back again. Fortunately, most of the work was pretty easy: Except for one crucial part.

"We wanted it to be friendly and appeal to children, but have a serious look on his face," Walker said. "You wouldn't believe all of the debate there was over just how to structure the little piece of lack of color that was in its eye -- that sparkle part."

The Jays had a crisis in confidence though, and throughout the '90s and early 2000s, the team swapped out the original logo in place of dark shades and an angry, stylized J. It didn't feel very Blue Jays, so in 2008 the hat returned as a throwback, and in 2012 it made its return for good. Like the animals in "Pet Sematary," it came back a little different.

The Blue Jays original logo on the left, the modern look on the right.

"It was Americanized," Walker joked. "Somewhere along the line, they lost sight of the fact that Canadians are a little more reserved than Americans. They thought, 'Well, hell, we should make the Maple Leaf a lot bigger, make the bird a lot faster.'"

Radom, who considers Walker's original design "flawless," knows the needs of logos today are not the same as when it was originally designed.

"[The logo] was not built with the needs of the digital age in mind," Radom said. "These logos now need to get gigantic, they need to reduce the size of an avatar. They need to move and rotate and all the stuff that he didn't have to think about in 1976 when he created them."

While those designs have had enough time on the shelf for cultural appreciation to grow, there's one that's just now reaching its vintage: The Mets' divisive black jerseys, which debuted in 1998. Though they're not back in rotation yet, fans who fondly remember the days when Mike Piazza regularly dressed up in black clamor for them online. New owner Steve Cohen even hinted at bringing them back on Twitter soon after he took over the team, and slugger Pete Alonso joined the call.

That the jersey exists at all -- and therefore deserves all of your praise or blame -- is thanks to Bob Halfacre, who now owns Bobcat Athletic and has a hand in designing many of the L.A. Kings' charity warm-up jerseys. At the time, he worked for AIS, the company that manufactured the Mets uniforms in the mid-to-late '90s. So, after hearing rumors that the team had been trying and failing to incorporate black into the logo, Halfacre made a pitch.

"I just stepped up one day and said, 'Can I take a shot at it?'" Halfacre told MLB.com. "And they're like, 'Yeah, why not? Nobody else can give us anything we like.' I threw it together in a day, we sewed it up and sent it and they liked it."

"I didn't even draw it," Halfacre added. "I literally made it out of lettering fabric. I took the twill and a blank Met jersey that we were gonna put a logo on and just modified it with the drop shadows."

That's where the design started -- the black drop shadow on the Mets wordmark, like what Piazza is in below:

"I'm from L.A. and we have big empty spaces here," Halfacre said, "but when I go to New York, all I ever notice is shadows. Everything is shadows. With all the tall buildings, you're either on the shadow side of the street or the sun's on the other side. When I put the drop shadow on, it brought the lettering away from the uniform. It's what New York was all about -- taller and shadowy -- and that's what I see. That was my take on it."

The Mets liked it and immediately took it a step further. Though it wasn't in Halfacre's original vision, the team added the black jersey and the black cap to go all in.

The one thing Halfacre wanted to see? The Mets' classic cap with a drop shadow. Here's a side-by-side recreation of the current cap next to a mockup of what it would look like with a drop shadow.

The reaction was swift. Young fans tended to embrace the look, while uniform lovers hated it. The Chicago Tribune said the Mets looked like "giant bruises."

"There was a big hate crowd," Halfacre said. "People were literally angry over it. I found it kind of funny -- it's just a uniform. It's not a big deal."

However, Halfacre had created a stir. Soon, teams like the Reds and Royals followed and added shadows to their traditionally bright and cheery designs.

"I think the biggest thing, as far as impact went, wasn't so much with the Mets," Halfacre said. "It was when other teams kind of did the same thing. That to me was pretty complimentary in the whole thing."

These days, uniform designs are big business, and no one is pitching a new jersey by cutting out fabric by hand. Teams focus-group their looks, and working with a big design firm is the expectation, not the exception to the rule. Fans spend hours scrutinizing designs and dreaming up their favorites -- a far cry from when teams picked their uniforms largely because that's what was available from the manufacturer.

Still, when new looks debut, expect to see more nostalgia-tinted designs updated for the 21st century. And while the Mets won't be wearing black this year, it certainly looks like the color is coming back sooner than later. How will Halfacre react when he sees it back on the field?

"It makes you feel like what you did had a little value," Halfacre said. "At the end of the day, it's just a uniform. It represents the franchise, so that's important. But we're not saving the world here. We're just trying to make things a little fun."