NEW YORK -- In a wooden ballpark located on The Hilltop in upper Manhattan, northwest of the Polo Grounds and close to the shores of the Hudson River, the New York Highlanders were ready to open their 1912 season. Their opponents on this day, April 11, were the Boston Red Sox. They were not rivals.
The Highlanders, commonly called the Yankees but a year away from formally taking on the name, had altered their uniforms nearly every year since their arrival from Baltimore in 1903. This season, they had another new look, sported by 23-year-old Ray Caldwell as he delivered the first pitch of the season.
They had added pinstripes.
Theirs were not the first baseball pinstripes. That honor belongs to the Chicago Cubs, who introduced them on their road uniform in 1907. But these pinstripes, as it turned out, would be different.
They were Yankees pinstripes. Born on April 11, 1912. One hundred years ago.
In terms of fashion, they would become the most prominent part of the Yankees' identity. They would make their home uniform the most famous and recognizable in sports history.
Of course, their 20 World Series victories in the 40 seasons from 1923-62 and their 29 pennants in the 44 seasons from 1921-64 helped make their pinstripes famous. Ruth's 60 homers, Gehrig's speech, DiMaggio's hit streak, Mantle's legend, Larsen's perfect game, Chambliss' home run, Derek Jeter's 3,000 hits, Rivera's saves, they all have a common imagery. The players wore pinstripes. They became synonymous with winning and accomplishments.
"[It's the] history," said Jeter, the Yankees captain. "That's not being disrespectful to any other team, but you say pinstripes and the first thing that comes to most people's mind is the Yankees. There's just so much history there and tradition, it makes it special for us as players.
"It's always cool. You put it on before every game and you feel special. It's different for me when I put on a different uniform -- Team USA, the All-Star Game during workouts, Minor League rehab games. It just feels funny, you know what I mean? The pinstripes, they just feel right, I guess."
Consider this exchange from the 2002 movie "Catch Me If You Can."
Frank Abagnale Sr.: You know why the Yankees always win, Frank?
Frank Abagnale, Jr.: 'Cause they have Mickey Mantle?
Frank Abagnale Sr.: No, it's 'cause the other teams can't stop staring at those damn pinstripes.
"When I was with Seattle .... we always seemed to hit Old-Timers Day," said Jeff Nelson, a relief pitcher during the Yankees' run of four World Series titles from 1996-2000. "And that's when Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto were still around, so the history was great and it was fun to watch those guys, even though I was from the opposition. When I came over in '96, we went into Spring Training and you put on the uniform and you finally realized why they carried themselves the way they did, and why they knew every time they stepped between the lines they were going to win. ... You instantly knew that's why, when you were on the other side, you hated them."
"Putting those pinstripes on was the closest thing I could say [I've had] to an out-of-body experience. ... I sat there and looked in the mirror. I was in total awe."
-- Hall of Famer|
Despite a 5-3 loss to Boston, the Highlanders apparently made an impression that day in 1912.
"The Yankees presented a natty appearance in their new uniforms of white with black pinstripes," The New York Times wrote the next day.
Yes, black pinstripes. The Yankees' color is midnight blue, but in 1912, the pinstripes were black. Perhaps because of their 102 losses that season -- the last time the team has lost in triple digits -- the formally named Yankees abandoned their pinstripes in 1913. But they returned for good in 1915.
The Yankees might have been influenced by the Giants, who added pinstripes to their home uniform the previous season, wearing them in one form or another through 1932. Other teams had added them as well, following the Cubs.
"When manager Harry Wolverton's Yankees trot out from their clubhouse on April 11 to open the season with Boston, Hilltop fans will see their favorites togged out in uniforms closely resembling those worn by the Giants last season," the Times wrote on Feb. 27, 1912, apparently after the new apparel was unveiled. "The fad for the pinstripe in baseball toggery, introduced by the Cubs a few years ago, has reached the Hilltop, and the home uniforms of the Yankees this year will be of that design."
This much is true: Larger players get to wear more pinstripes. ESPN.com wrote in 2008 that while Joba Chamberlain's jersey had 26 pinstripes on the front, Rizzuto's had only about 20.
The author noted that the thickness and spacing of the pinstripes have changed over the years. They were one-eighth of an inch thick during the days of Ruth and Gehrig but are now 3/32nds of an inch thick. The spacing between them has narrowed from 1.1 to 1.03 inches. Which would explain why a Ruth jersey in the Hall of Fame has 48 pinstripes around the torso while one belonging to Hideki Matsui has 52.
This much is not true: There are myths surrounding the pinstripes, but one that is easily destroyed is that the Yankees added them in order to minimize the girth of Ruth. But the Babe was 17 years old in 1912, two years from making his big league debut with the Red Sox. He wouldn't become a Yankee until 1920, and it wasn't until the '30s when Ruth grew wider.
"If we want to attribute to the Babe even that which he wasn't responsible for, well, perhaps it's only a fitting part of his larger-than-life legend," Marshall Smelser, a Ruth biographer, once said.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Cubs and Yankees have been flattered many times over. In addition to those two, nine other big league teams currently feature pinstripes on at least one version of their uniforms. Others have worn them at one time or another.
Many players have shared how it felt the first time they put on a Yankees home uniform. Some found it overwhelming.
"Putting those pinstripes on was the closest thing I could say [I've had] to an out-of-body experience," said Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, who joined the Yankees in 1978 and spent six full seasons with them. "They gave me a jersey at the press conference, but when I really put it on for the first time was in Spring Training. I sat there and looked in the mirror. I was in total awe. Incredible experience."
Gossage played for eight other teams during his 22-year big league career.
"As much as I loved every other team, there is absolutely no comparison," he said. "You're putting on a uniform of the greatest franchise in any sport, and there's nobody even close."