Green day: When did these unis first appear?

Shockingly, it wasn't the Reds

March 17th, 2021
Cate Nolan /

St. Patrick's Day is that magical day of the year when green -- the most cruelly overlooked hue in sports -- becomes the color du jour. The A's, known for their sparkling greens and golds, all of a sudden become like every other club. Teams like the Phillies and Red Sox don full green uniforms, while the rest of the league will accessorize with a simple green cap and socks. Some years even the bases get a nifty shamrock design or a fresh coat of green paint:

But who was the first to put on a green uniform for St. Patrick's Day? Most believe that it was the Reds, but the answer actually belongs to another team known for their red unis: The Phillies. Of course, this takes us all the way back to 1899, when the baseball uniforms looked quite a bit different.

"In a fitting commemoration of the day," the March 18, 1899, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer reads, "the Phillies burst upon the startled natives this morning in their new sweaters trimmed with green. The collar is of a hue the like of which has never been seen on this side of Ireland, and then, to accentuate it, there's a band of green running all the way round."

Now, you might say this doesn't count. For one thing, this was going to be the Phillies uniform for the season, so while it was unveiled on St. Patrick's Day, it wasn't really a St. Paddy's uniform. For another, this was 1899 and the game itself would hardly resemble what we see today. And finally, the Phillies didn't usher in a wave of green unis. Philadelphia would ditch the look the next season, and then bring green back for another year in 1910. The 1918 Cubs picked it up -- at least on the road -- and the 1937 Dodgers wore some green, too. But otherwise, until the A's took up the mantle in 1963, the only green you'd see at the ballpark was in the grass.

So, it would fall to the Reds to kick off the modern tradition of wearing green uniforms on St. Patrick's Day in 1978.

Unlike these days, the Reds didn't promote it. They didn't tell fans to be in their seats for a special surprise. They hadn't sent out flyers and catalogs touting the souvenir shirts and caps you could buy. They even took batting practice in their usual red-and-white outfits. But when it was time to come out on the field before the game, they stunned the crowd and their opponent, the Yankees, with a brand new look.

The only people that knew beforehand were GM Dick Wagner, the team's longtime equipment manager Bernie Stowe, and Koch's Sporting Goods, who supplied the uniforms at the cost of about $105 per set of shirts, undershirts, pants, caps, and socks.

"This was not a situation where there was a lot of discussion in our offices during the winter," Jim Ferguson, then the Reds' public relations director, said in 2010. "It was a tightly held secret, perhaps with Wagner alone, plus Stowe, who had to make all the arrangements. It was not out of character for Wagner to have made this a one-man production."

The players -- used to Sparky Anderson's demand to keep their hair neat and short, and who had to cover up any white stripes on their all-black cleats -- were not-so-pleasantly surprised.

"Did we get traded to Oakland?" catcher Johnny Bench asked.

Shortstop Davey Concepcion squinted at his green No. 13 uniform and said, "I'm not wearing that. I'm Venezuelan, not Irish."

With their lucky green unis and five shutout innings from Bill Bonham, the Reds cruised to an easy victory. The headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer the next day read, "Confused Yankees can't find Reds, bow to Greens, 9-2."

Though it was just a Spring Training exhibition, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was not a happy man, either.

“I think the green uniforms matched my complexion after seeing the inadequacies of the team that is supposed to be world champion," Steinbrenner said after the defeat.

And that was it: The specialty St. Patrick's Day uniforms had been unleashed. Though no teams joined the Reds in '79, the Astros were next in 1980. They went with an all-green shirt (sadly skipping a green version of their tequila sunrise stripes), with a very beer league-like message on the back.

The Phillies joined in 1986 and are one of the most consistent to wear green on the holiday, unwittingly paying tribute to that 1899 club.

Soon, more teams were getting involved, with the Mets, Twins, Tigers, and Rangers all wearing a green uniform at least once by the early '90s.

The Red Sox honor Boston's rich Irish heritage and have regularly worn green since 2004.

The White Sox usually hold a "Halfway to St. Patrick's Day" event in September and, sure enough, bring out the green uniforms:

Some players really get into the act, too. In 2015, the Padres wore green caps, but Dennis O'Grady paid homage to his heritage by getting fully decked out in a special green uniform.

Félix Hernández has even dyed his familiar tuft of a goatee bright green:

Entering this year, more than half of the big league teams have rocked green unis at least once -- though some, like the Yankees (natch) are holdouts. Most will just opt for the cap and socks:

In 2018, the Reds wore specialty patches commemorating those 1978 uniforms -- even if they were maybe not the true first ones to ever do it.

But where did they get their idea? Perhaps Wagner had a flash of inspiration, or maybe promotion director Roger Ruhl simply dreamed it up. Or, they may have been inspired by the Phillies yet again.

In a tale that feels apocryphal, but has been listed in William Henderson's deeply researched "Game Worn Guide to MLB Jerseys" as happening in 1977 (some other outlets mark it as happening in 1981), Phillies reliever Tug McGraw came up with a scheme for his favorite holiday: He dyed his Phillies uniform and socks bright green. But when he came to take the mound in his specialty kit, umpire Nick Colosi said no way. He would have to match the rest of the team if he intended on playing.

True? Maybe. False? Well, that's not nearly as much fun, is it?