George Wright Remembers: A Voice from 125 Years Ago
For a story that would run in the Boston Herald on Monday, June 18, 1888, a reporter engaged George Wright, the sporting-goods magnate (Wright & Ditson) and one-time idol of the baseball world, to offer his thoughts on a subject seldom addressed: the evolution of the baseball uniform. “THE LADIES USED TO BLUSH,” was the headline writer’s master stroke. “When Harry Wright First Wore the Red Stockings,” the heading continued, descending to “Evolution of the Modern Base Ball Costume.”
George Wright had retired as an active player after the 1882 season but was still involved in the game. In 1884 he had been an owner of the Boston franchise in the Union Association, a rival major league that lasted only one season, 1884. And by the end of this year in which he granted the interview, he would join his old teammate and rival Albert G. Spalding on a round the world tour, playing both baseball and cricket, which he had commenced to play with the St. George Club juniors at age nine. At this point I give my column over to George Wright, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, four months after his death at age ninety, and one of my all-time favorite figures in baseball history. His words have not appeared in print or on the web in all the nearly 125 years since he uttered them.
Thirty years ago, when I first began to play ball [i.e., 1858], there were no professional clubs in existence, and the regularly organized clubs of the time wore uniforms which would seem exceedingly strange and grotesque at the present day. In those days players wore long pants of various colors, either of grey, white, dark blue, or of a mixed check material. Extending down the side of the leg on the seam was sewed a broad white or red stripe, which gave, as you may imagine, a decidedly military air to the garment, in marked contrast to that worn today. At the ankle the pant leg on the outer side was split up a distance of perhaps six inches, and two buttons sewed on, so that by this means the pants could be securely fastened. At a little later period some players made use of a wide skate strap, binding it tightly about the pant leg, instead of the two-button arrangement before alluded to. Both of these contrivances were to aid the player if possible in stooping to pick up a hot grounder, to prevent catching the fingers in the loose cloth and spoiling the play, and also to guard against dirt and small stones flying at the leg while running the bases. There were no sliding pads used in the pants in those days, and I do not remember ever seeing a player try to slide a base.
The shirts worn by the old-time players wore generally made of white, blue or red flannel. Some clubs also had blue and white or black and white checked shirts, made very much in the style of those of the present day [i.e, 1888], but it was seldom that the club name appeared on the shirt front. The caps worn by players were invariably of bright colors, made of merino or flannel, with eight pieces to the crown, plenty large enough, with old-fashioned “peaks” or visors of leather. Well can I remember the caps worn by the Harvard College nine in, I think, the year 1866, while the team was on a tour to New York. They were of a jockey pattern, and fitted close to the head, with very long peaks or visors. I umpired one of the games they played with the Active club. The nine seemed pretty well used up, especially the catcher, who had a very black eye, which he had received in a game the day before, and he was forced to play in another position. Of course, the mask was not in use in those days. The base ball belts of the olden time were made of webbing of various colors, and on the back of one of them would be inscribed in many cases the word “captain.”
In regard to the matter of base ball shoes, the lapse of time has also caused a very marked change. The very first shoes worn by base ball players were made of white canvas, laced high up on the ankle. Now and then, perhaps, some player would have a calf or black leather shoe made to suit his own peculiar fancy, but the high laced canvas shoe was really the first shoe worn. A little later the French calf shoe was found to be more serviceable, in that it would wear much better and longer than canvas, and formed a more satisfactory protection against wet weather, more surely guarding the feet from the damp ground. The shoe of the present day in use to the majority of players is what is known as the “Kangaroo,” a shoe much lighter and stronger than those formerly in use, laced well down to the toe, similar to a running shoe. Some time ago Wright & Ditson made a pair of these kangaroos for Capt. John Morrill, and to this fact I attribute a large measure Capt. John’s good playing this season. This shoe was first introduced by a Philadelphia shoemaker.
In the matter of spikes for baseball shoes the first ones used were the same as those now placed upon cricket shoes. There were four spikes on each shoe, three at the sole and one at the heel. Later on Peck & Snyder of New York introduced spikes screwed into plates set into the sole and heel of the shoe, which could be removed at the player’s will by the use of a key especially prepared for the purpose. But the principal objection to them was that the hole from which the spike was removed would very quickly fill with dirt, after the manner of the heel plates in the old fashioned club skate, which all boys in times past have spent so much time over in digging out. There was also great danger to a player, while fielding or running bases, of being spiked. For this reason a malleable iron plate was invented by some one, with three wide points placed at the centre of the sole of the foot. After this the iron plate, on account of its malleability, would get dull and would not catch on the ground, hence the final introduction of the steel tempered plate now in use. The spine of today is riveted securely to the sole of the shoe, in place of being screwed on as of old, and a well-tempered plate will last a season.
In former times the pitcher, by the constant rubbing and chaffing of the right foot upon the ground, would very soon wear a hole completely through the toe of his shoe. To obviate this an extra piece of leather was put on at this point; but this in turn proving inadequate, the present cup-shaped piece of brass, extending half-way round the inner edge of the toe, was introduced. This contrivance will last a season, and is used now pretty generally. But there is another matter which I feel sure the public will feel more interest in than anything of which I have yet spoken. I refer to the introduction and adoption of knickerbocker short pants among base bail players.
My brother Harry first brought about this important change, and it was somewhat in this manner: The Young America Cricket Club of Philadelphia used often to come to New York, where my brother then was, to play games, and on one of its trips, in the year 1865, the captain of the cricket club presented my brother with a pair of long red stockings. In the succeeding year, 1866, when my brother went on his western trip, he took these stockings with him, and also had made for him a pair of knickerbocker pants to go with them. An extract taken from a Cincinnati paper in regard to this very matter will, perhaps, be of peculiar interest:
Now, be it known that knickerbockers, today so common—the showing of the manly leg in varied colored hose—was unheard of, and when Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red as its hue, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent. There were, however, strenuous supporters of the new idea—strong-headed radicals—and at a meeting on Third street they got possession, ‘by strategy, my boy,’ and adopted the uniform, afterward to be a byword, a nickname, a term of ridicule and finally of glory—that is ‘base ball history.’ Later, in 1868, the Cincinnati club, which had up to that time been composed of gentlemen playing ball simply for pleasure, was convened into a professional organization, and in the fall of the same year took its famous trip through the eastern cities, appearing for the first time in red stockings, thus introducing in a general way knee breeches and long stockings into base ball.
All of these historical facts In regard to base ball occurred, you must remember, in and around New York city, where the game of base bail really had its origin. The game was played, of course, in New England, but it was really the old English game of rounders, where there were no bases used, but the players ran to a stake or post placed in the ground. This was, then, in 1858 the New England style of playing our present national game. In New York, at this time, were the Knickerbocker, Gotham, Eagle and Mutual clubs, having their club ground at Hoboken, N. J., at a place called the Elysian Fields. This ground was surrounded by a long line of oak and maple trees, running alongside the Hudson river, and it often happened that some player hit the ball high over the tops of the trees, whence it would sail into the waters of the river far below. Then the game would be stopped for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes to prevail upon some youth to strip and swim for it. If the swimmer was successful in his search, the players would give him 25 to 50 cents, for it was a costly matter in those days to lose a ball, costing, as they did, $2 each. Consequently, this proffered reward kept the small boys in the neighborhood constantly on the alert for long hits over the tree tops, and much rivalry existed as to who should be the chosen swimmer
As I have before said, the rows of trees were the only enclosure to the grounds, and hence no admission fee was charged to the crowds of business men, clerks, etc., who, just as at the present time, daily came from the busy city after a hard day’s toil to enjoy the pleasure of seeing a good game of ball and who had only to walk or pay their fare to the grounds to witness their favorite sport. There was also at the Elysian Fields a large hotel called Perry’s, where the clubs had their headquarters. There were, of course, other base ball dubs in existence in Brooklyn, notably the old Atlantics, Stars, Excelsiors, Enterprise, etc., but the real centre of base ball was at Hoboken. Here there were located three grounds, where from six to eight clubs would play practice games on various afternoons of the week, and it was here, while a member of the Gotham club, that I first learned to play ball.