Baseball's Feet of Clay

Today's ballplayers strike out sartorially when they hide their socks under long pants
May 16, 1993

Because my own taste in men's apparel has not changed appreciably since the introduction of the natural shoulder look, I hesitate to pass myself off as an arbiter of fashion. And yet when I attend a baseball game these days, I find myself feeling somewhat as Yves Saint Laurent might were he to drop in on wet T-shirt night at the O.K. Corral saloon. The modern ballplayer, I fear, does not know how to wear his uniform. What I deplore specifically is the virtual disappearance from his attire of socks, or sox. How, for example, can the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox persist in identifying themselves by their hosiery when none is visible? Pale Hose, indeed; No Hose is more like it.

Presumably these teams and others, such as the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, issue their players socks of bright and appealing hue with the intention of having them publicly displayed. Instead, the athletes' insistence on wearing their pegged pants down to their shoe tops leaves no space for a show of hose, no matter how colorful. All that is visible is a short strip of stirrup. And, increasingly, even this narrow swatch is enveloped by the dreadful hightop shoes so many players now favor. Players like Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and Mark McGwire of the Oakland A's, with their boots and ankle-length trousers, affect a manner of dress that once stigmatized the wearer as a clodhopper. Their idea of a fashion plate must be Tom Joad.

I do not understand this aversion to socks. Are the players motivated by prudery? Do they regard "a glimpse of stocking" as "something shocking"? I doubt it. Perhaps they merely follow the hoary tradition of bad taste set by the worst-dressed of all athletes—college football players, who not only tend to run bare-legged but also fancy the bare-midriff look, a double insult to style. The average college football player is about as fashionably attired as a hotel guest fleeing an early-morning fire. Surely no one with any pride in his appearance would wish to be caught in such a state of dishabille.

No, I feel certain that somewhere underneath those long pants, baseball socks actually exist. It's just that we have no idea what they look like. In truth, stockings started disappearing from view in the 1970s with that ugly trend toward the high stirrup. As appalling as that development was, it was no worse than the other manifestations of tackiness—long sideburns, wide neckties, bell-bottom trousers, loud jackets—that transformed that decade into the dark age of fashion. Baseball uniforms merely reflected this national decline in good taste (think of the clown suits worn by the A's, the White Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time). But in recent years, the tasteful uniform seemed to be making a comeback. Gone, for the most part, were things like the Montreal Expos' garish blue road outfits and the Houston Astros' rainbow home suits. The traditional look, as exemplified by the attire of the Giants, the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, seemed to have regained its proper dominance. Then they made the pants too long.

I strongly suggest that if the modern player is at all interested in learning how stylish a man can look in uniform, he should seek out old photographs of Joe DiMaggio in his navy blue socks with short stirrups, or of Stan Musial, proudly displaying the red-and-white-striped hose of the Cardinals. These baseball Beau Brummells were not satisfied with just part of a uniform. They wore the entire costume with great distinction. After all, does a symphony conductor show up for work in his shirtsleeves? A ballet dancer sans tights? A diplomat barefoot?

You will observe that until now I have conspicuously omitted from this treatise any mention of the fashion habits of sportswriters. This is because, quite frankly, I find the topic too painful for discussion. I can, you see, recall a time when newsmen wore coats and ties to the ballpark, thereby distinguishing themselves from the common folk in the cheap seats and identifying themselves as the apostles of a noble craft. They were there to do a job, and they dressed the part, some even nattily. Now, alas, the sportswriter is sartorially indistinguishable from the average high school sophomore. At that, the teenager probably shows more imagination in his choice of T-shirts.

I fear that little can be done to renounce this virtually incomprehensible fashion statement. Sportswriters are creatures of habit. And a dress code would never work in the press box. The writers, after all, are not required to wear uniforms, even if most of them do look pretty much alike in their modified Charlie Brown look. Ballplayers, on the other hand, are obliged to be in uniform. So why don't they wear theirs with some sense of style? The team is called the Red Sox, not the Long Pants. I know if I were a hosiery manufacturer, I would sue baseball for defamation of product.

There was a time not long ago when teams, notably the Giants and the Reds, required their players to show a little stocking. Some players rebelled, accusing the front offices of fashion fascism, when, in fact, all they were asking of their employees was that they wear their uniforms as they were designed to be worn. Anyone who has ever seen the way ballplayers dress away from the ballpark knows that these Philistines should not be allowed to dictate fashion. The term major league once connoted style. Now, Lord knows what it stands for.