Commentary

Uni Watch: MLB firsts and lasts

From memorial patches to throwbacks, a look at how baseball traditions first began

Updated: May 1, 2014, 9:47 AM ET
By Paul Lukas | ESPN.com

Ike DavisAP PhotoIt appears Ike Davis has the spirit of Ralph Kiner with him this season.

Baseball is a sport of firsts and lasts -- the first player to do this, the last team to do that. Case in point: As you may have heard, Ike Davis got his name in the record books last month when he was traded from the Mets to the Pirates and promptly became the first player in MLB history to hit a grand slam for two different teams in the same April.

But Davis may have achieved another distinction that hasn't received nearly as much attention: The Mets and Pirates are both wearing Ralph Kiner memorial patches this season, which means Davis has already worn two different memorial patches for the same person this year. He is probably the first player ever to do this within the first month of a given season -- Uni Watch research into that point is still ongoing -- and almost certainly the first to do so while hitting grand slams for both of the memorializing teams in the same year. (If Davis wants to nail the trifecta, he could enroll at the University of New Mexico, whose baseball team is wearing its own Kiner memorial patch this season.)

Uni Watch
That raises a follow-up question: Is Kiner the first person to be uni-memorialized by two different teams in the same year? Nope. There are at least four other examples of this that Uni Watch is aware of: Sparky Anderson (honored by the Reds and Tigers in 2011), Tug McGraw (Mets and Phillies, 2004), Catfish Hunter (Yanks and A's, 1999), and Tim Crews (Dodgers and Indians, 1993).

The lesson here is that the "first and last" game doesn't apply just to on-field feats and statistical quirks. It also applies to the world of uniforms. With that in mind, here are half a dozen uni-related MLB first and lasts, along with a follow-up question for each one:

1. The first memorial patch: If Ike Davis had played prior to 1973, there's no way he (or anyone else) could have worn two different memorial patches for the same person, because memorial patches didn't exist yet! For generations, the standard memorial gesture was a black armband. That changed in 1973, when the Pirates wore a "21" patch for Roberto Clemente -- the first memorial patch ever to appear on an MLB uniform. Four decades later, patches have supplanted armbands as the go-to memorial gesture, and memorial patch design is now a serious sub-genre within the uni-verse. (Meanwhile, here's a little-known footnote about that '73 Clemente patch: The Pirates didn't wear the patch during spring training. Instead, they wore pieces of black ribbon. When the regular season began, they briefly wore amateurish-looking cover-up patches and then shifted to the real patches.)

Follow-up question: Which was the first team to wear a memorial patch on the chest, instead of on the sleeve? That would be the 1999 Brewers. They were already wearing a team logo patch on the left sleeve and a County Stadium final-season patch on the right. So when three ironworkers died in a crane accident during the construction of Miller Park that summer, the team added an ironworkers' union patch on the left chest area.

2. The first team to wear NOBs (names on back): Today we take it for granted that sports teams put their players' names on the backs of their jerseys. This concept was pioneered by the 1960 White White Sox, who previewed the idea in January of that year, tried it out in spring training, and then went ahead with it for the regular season. (Naturally, this also led to baseball's first NOB typo.)

Follow-up question: On the other end of the spectrum, everyone knows the Yankees are the last holdouts to go NNOB (that's "no name on back") at home and on the road. But which was the last all-NNOB team prior to the Yanks? Answer: The 1989 Red Sox. In 1990, they added NOBs to their road jerseys, although they still go NNOB at home.

[+] EnlargeTim Raines
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesNo player since the speedy Tim Raines has gone flapless in baseball.
3. The last player to wear a batting helmet without an earflap: Earflap-equipped helmets became mandatory in 1983, but there was a grandfather clause for players who were already active at the time. Over the next decade and a half, the ranks of the flapless players were slowly winnowed down until only a handful remained. The last of them was Gary Gaetti, whose retirement early in the 2000 season appeared to close the book on the flapless era. But then Tim Raines came out of retirement and played in 2001 and '02. He will go down as the last flap-free hitter.

Follow-up question: So who was the first player to wear an earflap? That's a trickier question than you might think. Headwear manufacturers were experimenting with protective earflaps at least as early as 1920, although it's not clear whether any of them were actually worn on a big league diamond. Jackie Hayes of the White Sox wore a flap-ish contraption in 1940, well before batting helmets even existed. Twins catcher Earl Battey had an improvised flap attached to his helmet in 1961 and his teammate Tony Oliva tried something similar in 1964. Later that same year, Phillies outfielder Tony Gonzalez wore what appears to have been the first helmet designed with a built-in flap.

4. The first team to wear throwbacks: On July 11, 1990, the White Sox rolled out a promotion that had never been tried before: Turn Back the Clock Night. Their uniforms that day, which honored the franchise's 1917 World Championship team, were the first throwbacks in MLB history (or, for that matter, major team sports history). You can see more photos and info here. More than two decades later, throwback games have become a standard element of the sport, and every MLB team has worn throwbacks at least once.

Follow-up question: Which was the last team to wear throwbacks for the first time? Answer: Going into last season, the Rockies were the only MLB club that had never turned back the clock. That finally changed on April 15, 2013, when the Rockies celebrated their 20th annivsary by wearing 1993 throwbacks.

5. The first team to wear uniform numbers: The 1916 Indians experimented with sleeve numbers for a few weeks, and so did the 1923 Cardinals. But the first team to wear numbers on the back of the jersey were the 1929 Indians, who opened their season on April 16. The Yankees were poised to wear back uni numbers that day as well, but their home opener was rained out, giving the uni-numerical distinction to the Indians. By 1937, all MLB teams had adopted numbers on the backs of their home and road jerseys.

Follow-up question: Which was the first team to wear front jersey numbers? The answer to that one is the 1952 Dodgers, and there's a great story behind it: Team owner Walter O'Malley had originally planned to have the team wear the red front numbers in the 1951 World Series, but of course Bobby Thomson and the Giants had other ideas. Since O'Malley had already had the number-inclusive jersey made, he decided to use them as the team's standard jerseys for the following season.

Follow-up to the follow-up: Most teams wear the front number on the left side, underneath the jersey script. Have any teams positioned the front number differently? Yes: Thanks to a manufacturer's error, the 1972 Cubs had centered numbers. And for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, the Reds wore their numbers on the right side from 1993 through 1998. Looks weird, doesn't it?

[+] EnlargeAl Oliver
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesAl Oliver wore the No. 0 for six different MLB teams in his career.
6. The first player to wear No. 0: No MLB player had ever gone zero-clad until Al Oliver did so with the Rangers in 1978. (He later wore No. 0 with several other teams.) Many observers have mistakenly assumed that Oliver wore zero because his last name begins with "O," but that actually had nothing to with it. As Oliver told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, the number represented his attempt to reboot his career after he was traded from the Pirates to the Rangers: "I was going to a new league, a new city, so it was like starting all over again. So '0' was a new starting point." Thirteen other players have worn 0 since then, most recently Mets infielder Omar Quintanilla, who adopted the number this season. You can see the full list of zero heroes here.

Follow-up question: Who was first player to wear double-zero? That would be Bobo Newsome of the 1943 Washington Senators. Nineteen other players have worn No. 00 over the years, with the most recent addition to the club being Brennan Boesch of the Angels, who began wearing it after being called up to the bigs a few weeks ago.

That's enough for today, but we've barely exposed the tip of the iceberg here. So expect to see additional installments in this series, which will cover things like the first team to wear powder blue, the last player to go without a batting helmet, the first team to wear pullover jerseys and beltless pants, the first player with a hyphenated name on his jersey, the first BP jersey, and more. Want to suggest some additional uni-related firsts and lasts (not just for MLB but for other sports as well)? Send your submissions here.

Paul Lukas still dreams of becoming the first MLB player to fake having a skin allergy to polyester so he can wear a flannel uniform. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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