May 4th, 2011

The Color of Baseball

Why does a fireman wear red suspenders? Every kid knows the answer: to hold his pants up. But the better question for curious adults may be why he wears red at all, or why brides wear white and kings wear purple. Color speaks a secret language that our generation hears as white noise, an indistinct hum that we decipher unconsciously. The traces of these ancient meanings have come down to us most clearly in sport, which retained some of the mystical, hierarchical, and military trappings of old, even as society advanced beyond the guild, the village, and the governing church. In the colorful pageant of sport we may see rulers and revolutionaries, capitalists and tradesmen, even valorous firemen and, if not brides, baseball annies.

While the proliferation of sports teams over the past fifty years has created some startling color choices in uniforms and logos, even these must be the product of some thought process, no matter how dubious. The Florida Marlins’ unsettling teal surely is meant to represent Miami waterways, as the Colorado Rockies’ purple signals the nearby mountains’ majesty. The New York Mets’ blue and orange echo the official colors of the 1939 World’s Fair as well as the tinted gowns of the damsels Liberty and Justice, respectively, on the New York State Seal. There are animal associations (Tigers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks) but team colors are not always consonant with life in the wild. And there are frontier motifs (the old Houston Colt .45s) and ethnic lampoons (Indians, Braves … don’t get me started).

But we must start our story somewhere, and Baltimore seems as good a place as any. Its revered football team, the Colts (colors: blue and white) hightailed it out of town for Indianapolis in 1984, leaving fans without the NFL until the Cleveland Browns (brown and orange) left the shores of Lake Erie for those along Chesapeake Bay. This was the second brown-and-orange team to come to Baltimore, as baseball’s Browns had arrived from St. Louis in 1954. Those Browns dropped their name in transit, becoming the Orioles, a venerable name in the city’s baseball history. The oriole (Icterus galbula) also happened to be the official state bird, in part because its yellow-and black coloration matched that in the shield of Sir George Calvert (Lord Baltimore) and was further memorialized in the state flag. (Yes, I know the ball club’s featured bird is orange and black, but John James Audubon’s rendition of the Oriole had been yellow and black, matching the colors of the western Maryland Bullock’s Oriole; the two variants have since thoroughly interbred, and are now combined in a single species … see what happens when you get me started?)

When Baltimore’s first professional baseball team took to the field in 1872 they wore Lord Baltimore’s colors of yellow (heavy silk shirts) and black (flowing pantaloons), striking such a figure of fun that they were called not the Orioles but the Canaries. Indeed, by the following season that epithet had become the club’s de facto nickname. Every other team in the National Association featured the more discreet embellishments that flowed from the original American team sports uniform, that of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. Many of the gentlemen who founded that organization in 1845 were volunteer firemen, and the fealty and pride they felt for their fire companies gave them a common sense of purpose on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, where they were eventually engaged by other sturdy “base ballists” playing under their own sedate colors.

As volunteer firemen, the men who would become Knickerbockers might have adopted for their ball play the fire company’s classic red shirt with a shield or dickey on which the number of his company was embroidered in muslin figures; the magic numerals fixed the men’s identity beyond a doubt and gave them a sense of belonging. These jaunty uniforms bound men to their comrades in united purpose, just as the common color of medieval guildsmen might indicate their craft. Fireman’s red was a prestigious color because, like purple, it signified blood, with its connotations of bravery, sacrifice, and passion. In medieval times crimson and scarlet (the latter name actually derived from an expensive cloth that might be dyed any color) were beyond the reach of the peasantry. The word crimson comes from the Sanskrit krmi-ja, a dye mistakenly believed to be produced from a worm (the kermes was actually an insect).

While the fire laddies’ garb formed the prototype for early baseball uniforms (and arguably those of today), the Knicks’ earliest mandated ensemble (1849) consisted of blue woollen pantaloons, white flannel shirt, and chip (straw) hat. While blue and white remained the costume of the club until it disbanded in 1882, the straw hats were replaced by blue mohair caps in 1855. Oddly, the Knickerbockers always wore pants, never knickerbockers (knickers, knee breeches), even after Cincinnati innovated its calf-exposing, lady-thrilling red stockings in 1867. Soon almost all baseball teams in the 19th century went for the “manly display” and many derived their enduring names from the color of their stockings (Cincinnati Reds; Chicago Whites; New York (Mutual) Greens; Hartford Dark Blues; Providence Grays; St. Louis Browns; etc.).

Baseball in the 1860s was dominated by patriotic color schemes of white (symbolizing peace, purity, innocence) and blue (freedom, constancy, justice), with red as the accent color for caps or the cord trim of the pants, which were often cut wide in the style of the French Colonial Zouaves, in sympathy with their exotic mission in Algeria. Furthermore, this red-white-blue combination continued to echo the colors of other nations born in revolt. Even today, of 192 national flags, these three colors constitute the flags of 30 nations, more than any other color or combination.

Baseball uniforms of the 1870s and ’80s erupted into a rainbow owing nothing to national aspiration or the heraldic tradition of few, but intense, colors. Skullcaps of different colors by position played (as with the 1876 Chicago White Stockings, in what a reporter termed a “Dutch bed of tulips”), striped silk jerseys (all major-league teams in 1882), and blood-red flannel uniforms, top and bottom (Louisville, 1888) made baseball players feel like theater folk, prisoners, or “fancy men.” Codpieces and pigeon-breast plates might have been next, but a relatively somber palette returned in the ensuing decades, as stripes and checks were displayed in faint motifs in the uniforms of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants.

But flamboyance and color have certainly returned with a vengeance since the disco days of the 1970s. With the digital revolution making thousands of new colors spring into life, the meat-and-potatoes basics of the analog color set began to seem awfully tame. Why do blue and gold when you can specify “Pantone Color 14-4002, Wind Chime” (whatever that looks like). Martha Stewart presents an imagistic palette of 416 colors that reads like a diner menu (“succulent, farm-fresh tomatoes”) yet has the vapory lure of perfume advertising. Imagine going to a ballgame and seeing the New York Flauberts, outfitted in Caen Stone, Rosedust, and Light French Gray, square off against the Boston Brahmins, robed in Acanthus, Aristocrat Peach, and Buckram Binding. (These are real Martha colors.)

So what is the color of baseball? Pastel, tincture, gradient … or the bold colors and noble metals of yore? Whatever the value or the shade, it says here that the color of baseball is green — and not for the reasons you think, bilious reader. Green may indeed be the color of money, which is what defines professional play. Or envy. But even professionals love the game, which makes them, at heart, amateurs who get paid. For the player as it is for the fan, green is the color of spring, of baseball, of hope.