Common thread

Orioles: The team's uniforms have undergone several changes - mostly subtle but some debatable - throughout the years.


January 23, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF


An article in yesterday's Sports section on Orioles uniforms failed to acknowledge as a source for the article Bruce Genther, a memorabilia collector who has compiled an authoritative history of Orioles uniforms.

The Sun regrets the omission.

The sports fan itching for a fight can always stroll into Pickles Pub across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards some game night and loudly declare support for keeping that darn city name - "Baltimore" - off the Orioles' road jerseys.

Along the 50-year march of Orioles history, "Baltimore" appeared then disappeared, one uniform change that for some folks still stings. Who's to blame a soul for clutching stability in the pickup game that major league baseball has become?

Jerry Seinfeld has famously noted that with players switching sides every two minutes, the contemporary fan essentially roots for laundry. Apologies to Francis Scott Key, but through the perilous nights of free agency, our polyester double-knit flag is still there.

With the addition of a number on the jersey front, changes from black to orange and a few other uniform details, the Baltimore Oriole of spring 2004 will look slightly different from his predecessor of 1954 who took the field in Detroit for that first game on April 13. For the record, the Orioles lost, 3-0, behind Don Larsen, and 46,994 people were counted as witnesses. For the record, the out-of-town jersey did not say "Baltimore."

The premise that the city name's disappearance from the uniform represents some departure from authenticity is perhaps a conflict of memory and history, or maybe a question of what constitutes the "genuine" Orioles look.

The decision to put "Orioles" in place of "Baltimore" on the out-of-town jersey was actually a return to the look of 1954 and 1955. From 1956 through the 1972 season, the team switched to the practice of many but not all other ballclubs in using the city name on the out-of-town jersey and the team nickname on the home uniform.

So it went until 1973, the same year the designated hitter rule appeared in the American League and civilization as we know it continued the slide that began when the Houston Astrodome opened in 1965.

"It galls me to no end," says Phil Wood, a veteran Baltimore sports broadcaster and uniform collector.

He's talking about the decision to drop the city name from the out-of-town uniform, which, contrary to a common view, was not made by Washington lawyer and former Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, who did not buy the team until 1979.

The contentious uniform change was made under Jerold C. Hoffberger for reasons that remain not entirely clear. One theory holds that since the Washington Senators had left the District of Columbia after the 1971 season, Orioles management thought that subordinating their club's Baltimore identity might somehow make the team more appealing to bereft Senators fans.

Hoffberger thus plays both heavy and hero when some Baltimore fans envision the "true" Orioles look.

The `Baltimore' debate

For Wood, who has occasionally advised the team on uniform configurations, that genuine look was established during the 1960s and early '70s. Those were Hoffberger teams, the most successful in franchise history. In the American League pennant seasons of 1966, '69, '70 and '71 - a stretch when the Orioles won the World Series twice - the club wore the two-toned cap with the cartoon bird emblem, the orange socks with one black stripe. And, yes, the word "Baltimore" in script across the chest for games away from Memorial Stadium.

"When people think of Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, they see them in that uniform," says Wood, who is co-host of a Saturday afternoon radio sports show on WJFK-AM.

To the extent that collective memory has been shaped by baseball cards, chances are the uniform would have said "Baltimore," not "Orioles." As Orioles public relations director Bill Stetka points out, baseball card photographers in those days mostly worked in New York, taking player pictures when teams came through town.

"A lot of these cards had players in their visiting uniforms," Stetka says. "That's what gets stamped in people's heads."

Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos, whose group bought the team in 1993, has on occasion talked about bringing the city name back to the uniform, but Stetka says the question does not get much attention from Orioles management. He says the issue "comes up periodically, but not as often as people think."

Once in a while there's a letter to the club or the argument flares on a radio show. Stetka says "it's something else for people to get on us about."

Cartoon bird soars

You can arouse a small measure of that heat with the argument about the Orioles bird emblem. The dispute splits between those who prefer the realistic bird perched now on the crown of the black uniform cap and those who long for the smiling cartoon version originally drawn by former Sun artist Jim Hartzell, who died last spring.

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