With designs on sales, more and more teams are changing uniforms

March 31, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

Baseball has reached the end of the rainbow. And yes, there is gold there.

The Houston Astros, who jolted the sports world in 1975 with a kaleidoscopic uniform, finally have abandoned the last vestiges of the "rainbow" in favor of a gold-accented blue and gray uniform.

And they aren't the only team toning down this year and hoping to hit it rich with sales of team apparel. Twenty-two of the 28 major-league teams will take the field this year in redesigned uniforms, a record. In some cases, the changes will be minor, such as tinkering with batting practice jerseys for the Orioles. In others, such as the Astros, it will be dramatic.

Overall, say those who follow sports fashion, the changes represent the end of one fashion epoch and the beginning of another. America's oldest and most tradition-bound league is rediscovering its roots, rejecting the splashy and unconventional designs that dominated the 1970s.

"I think this is the conclusion of the '60s and '70s design period. I think the pendulum has swung the other way, to tradition," said Anne Occi, vice president of design for Major League Baseball Properties, the sport's merchandising unit.

And what a period it was. Thick waistbands, V-neck, button-less jerseys and bright color. Lots of color.

Several factors conspired to make the nation's baseball players look like candy canes during the period. Color television grew common, and double-knit polyester just had been invented, making it easier to experiment with looks the owners thought would show well on TV, said Mark Okkonen, author of "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century."

And there were the sensibilities of the time -- the age of bell-bottom pants and platform shoes -- which favored the unusual.

There is a new consideration in uniform design, and it's colored green: money. Baseball, like all major-league sports, has discovered a gold mine in sales of caps, shirts and other officially licensed merchandise.

The Chicago White Sox were the first team to show how a redesign can affect sales. The team went to a black-and-white color scheme a few years back and rocketed from near-last to first place in merchandise sales. Last year's expansion teams, -- the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies, began play in uniforms designed to sell and went to the top of the lineup as soon as they took the field.

The 28 baseball franchises split evenly the licensing revenues from apparel sales, but some teams also operate their own retail stores and can benefit individually from a hot look. The Texas Rangers, for example, this year will take over operation of all in-stadium merchandise sales and will inaugurate a new uniform to go with their new ballpark.

"I think there is a growing sophistication among baseball clubs," said Marty Conway, vice president of marketing for the Rangers. "There are two ways everyone is moving, a classic look or something they think younger fans will like."

The new Rangers uniform features red shoes, caps, belts and lettering.

A popular uniform helps a team in several ways, not the least of which by peppering the streets with "walking billboards," Conway said.

Occi, the designer with Major League Baseball, said navy blue has begun to edge out black in design popularity. Earth tones, belt loops, buttons on jerseys and pinstripes also have staged a comeback.

Her office has specialists in color forecasting and design who work with teams when requested. But she said the teams generally do much of the basic work themselves, sometimes with the help of consultants. Other times, a team owner simply sketches something.

"The objective is to keep the integrity and vision of the team intact," she said.

The Astros took that advice in their new uniform. A new, open-sided star and forward-leaning, block script preserve a contemporary look. But the color overhaul eliminates the rainbow that began as a series of broad, horizontal strips across the bottom half of the jersey and by last year had evolved into more modest set of shoulder stripes.

"We have a new owner, and when he came in, he said he wanted us to have a new look," said Pam Gardner, Astros director of communications. Drayton McLane Jr. took over the team in late 1992.

Once called the Colt .45s, the Astros took their current name and futuristic look in 1965 as a play on the prominence of the NASA space center in Houston. Over the years, they have demonstrated a willingness to lead the fashion pack: Houston players have showcased zippered jerseys, orange caps and socks and a variety of celestial logos.

"Our team is young and fast and forward and exciting. We wanted to do something that was futuristic," Gardner said.

The Milwaukee Brewers also have overhauled their logo and uniform this year, as have the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians.

Others will debut more modest changes, such as a new cub for the Cubs, the elimination of a home cap for the Blue Jays and a new road uniform for the Tigers. Several teams -- the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Phillies and Blue Jays -- have added alternate jerseys or caps to break up the season.

"Unless the owners have gone berserk, I don't expect this many changes every year," said Okkonen, the uniform historian.

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