World Series preview: Searching for an identity

Please welcome our second contributor, Tim. While he’s not painfully enduring following Mets games while working at Fenway Park, he’s coming up with astute observations on uniforms. He’s an authority on baseball, hence, here are his thoughts on the aesthetics of the upcoming Fall Classic.

Cardinals closer Jason Motte has continued St. Louis' success this postseason, and it has come in the classic look of the birds on the bats. Photo by Getty Images

The Cardinals and Rangers will meet tonight in Game 1 of the World Series. It will represent a clash of organizations that have very little in common. St. Louis has been around since the 1800s, and it is the most successful National League franchise—both ever and recently. Texas has existed only since 1972 and has never won a Fall Classic.

In terms of uniforms, however, the teams display many similarities. But it’s their differences—however subtle—that illustrate important concepts of uniform design, identity, and tradition.

The Cardinals have one of the best and cleanest looks in Major League Baseball. The birds perched on a baseball bat across their chests has become iconic; it’s been a part of their uniform since 1922 (with the notable exception of 1956). Since then, however, their uniforms have pretty much been the same, give or take some cool stirrups here and there, the inevitable pullover- and light blue-ization of the uniform in the ‘70s and ‘80s,* and the way St. Louis went all Volstead Act on the concept of front numbers in 1979-80.

*I don’t know about you, but that Major League Baseball teams still wore pullovers as recently as 1992 seems very weird. In a way, the full-fledged re-adoption of button-downs in MLB marks the stylistic end of the ‘80s, no?

Like the Rangers, the Cardinals have experimented with both red and blue. While the letters and outlines on their jerseys have always been red, the Cardinals have often worn navy caps, beginning in 1940. For nearly a quarter-century, they only wore navy caps, until the current red-at-home, navy-on-the-road model was adopted in 1964—a good year in St. Louis. It lasted only that season—much like Yogi Berra’s first tenure as Yankees manager—before disappearing itself for 25 years, with the Cards wearing only the red hats. The road navies reappeared in 1992 along with button-down jerseys. The uniform has not changed since.

Michael Young and the rest of the Rangers reached their second straight World Series in this puzzling two-toned look for home games. Photo by Getty Images

The Rangers, meanwhile, do not possess nearly the same pedigree as St. Louis, either as a franchise or in their uniform styling. Texas has had five different logos in its relatively brief 40-year existence; the Cardinals, on the other hand, have had seven in 110 years. The Rangers have therefore struggled to forge a consistent identity. Their first uniforms went with an old-time Western font that included lowercase lettering—something very rarely seen in non-cursive wordmarks.* They had an anomalous 1983 with a weird “TR” logo never seen before or since. The Rangers wore their first tenable uniforms in 1986 before overhauling their look in 1994. The overhaul was very much welcome; the old, flat T was replaced by a beveled one that is, in my estimation, the best T in all of sports.

*Think my use of “rarely” is unmerited? The Twins are the only current MLB team to employ this style of wordmark; in the past, the Astros, Padres, and Angels are the only squads to have done it (that I can think of). It’s not even common in other sports. The Steelers are the lone football team with lowercase print in their wordmark. The Red Wings and Capitals do it in hockey. It has a bit more currency in the NBA, dating back, I think, to the Blazers and Bullets.

The Rangers also switched to red in 1994, a move that seemed welcome at the time but which has caused all sorts of quandaries ever since. Starting in 2000, Texas has bounced back and forth between red and royal before settling—sometime this season, I believe, although it could have been last—on wearing red hats at home and royal ones on the road.

You’d think this is pretty much the same thing the Cardinals do, and thus it should be celebrated. The problem, though, is that the Rangers’ red hats don’t in any way mesh with their home white jersey, which still has royal font (with red outline). The resulting look isn’t clean. Now, if you want to say that the Cardinals’ roads pair a navy hat with a jersey with red lettering, well you’re right. And it’s not clear to me if the reason this looks fine to me while the Rangers’ homes don’t is some sort of traditionalist bias (unlikely, just because the new Nationals’ uniforms look good doing the same thing) or the apparent fact that navy and gray intrinsically go together (they certainly do to me; pretty much everything I wore in high school fit that color scheme).

Cliff Lee led the Rangers last season when they stuck with blue-on-blue as their primary home look.

Now, to answer the obvious “How do the Rangers fix this?” question, we have some preliminary, theoretical ones to address. First, how important a role does a team’s uniform play in its identity? Second, is carrying on a two-toned identity feasible, let alone preferable? If it isn’t, what color are the Rangers?

My answer to the first is, almost everything. Your colors are your colors,* and it’s very difficult to up and change them after an identity has been forged. That’s why the Rangers could go to red in the first place; they had never made the playoffs. The Diamondbacks can get away with going from purple to red; the first look never worked anyway. But it’s a lot harder for the Atlanta Hawks to go from red to navy, the Denver Broncos to go from orange to navy, or the Utah Jazz to go from purple to navy. Fan reaction, both regionally and nationally, is typically strong, eventually resulting in a reversion to the old look. All three of those franchises have gone back, Jack Shepard-style.

*Imagine me placing extra emphasis on the second “colors” here, similar to EA Sports’ “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game” motto; that might get the point across.

And so I think we’ve established the significant tie between a team’s primary color and its identity, and that’s what makes the Rangers’ two-tonedness so unappealing. The Cardinals can get away with navy hats on the road; their uniforms are still primarily red, and they have been for 110 years. Their chromatic identity is secure. The Rangers, on the other hand, don’t have that track record. Although they have been blue far longer than they’ve been red, the Rangers first rose to prominence when they switched to red. Their first three postseason appearances came when they were red.

That’s what makes the last question—what color are the Rangers?–impossible to answer. They aren’t red or blue; they’re both, in which case they’re neither.

The solution, then, is for Texas to embrace royal blue. Ditch the red hats and the red alternates entirely; ditch the blue alternates, too, but less for identity reasons than “These are ugly” reasons. Although the franchise’s first run of success came in red, it can now be disregarded, as it is no longer its only run of success (or its most successful period). As the Rangers continue on the franchise’s golden age, it should be in royal blue.

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