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Major Historical Find: Yanks Wore Red Undershirts!

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I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: On the one hand, we are extremely fortunate to live in an era in which online databases allow us to look up the uniform histories of MLB, the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, college football helmets, and more. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the researchers and historians who compiled those sites. But on the other hand, as we’ve seen many times over the years, those databases can sometimes be erroneous or incomplete, so it’s important to remember that there’s still a lot of previously undocumented uni history waiting to be discovered.

The latest example of that came a few days ago, when uni designer/historian Todd Radom tweeted the astonishing news that several Yankees wore red undershirts at various points in the 1920s — something that he (and I) had never heard about before.

Todd’s tweet included two pieces of supporting evidence. The first was a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article about Game One of the 1927 World Series, indicating that six Yankees were wearing red undersleeves with their grey road uniforms:

Todd also provided a 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about how six Yankees, along with mascot Eddie Bennett, wore red undershirts with their home pinstripes for a late-season doubleheader in 1929:

That last article mentions that the six players wore the red base layers “primarily to keep warm,” although it’s not clear (at least to me) why red shirts would be any warmer than the team’s usual undershirts. Speaking of which: You might assume that the Yanks’ standard undershirts during this period were navy. But according to Dressed to the Nines (which, again, we should not treat as gospel, although it’s a good starting point), they were actually white:

In any case, I found the red revelation to be pretty mind-blowing. I wanted to know more, so I emailed Todd and asked if he had specifically gone looking for this information (maybe after hearing rumors about the red sleeves?), or if he’d just stumbled across it while researching something else.

“As is usually the case, I totally stumbled upon it — a lucky accident,” he replied. He then shared a few more red-referencing articles he’d uncovered, beginning with this one, which mentions that two Yankees pitchers wore red undershirts in Game Six of the 1921 World Series:

Next up was this 1924 New York Daily News article about how the Yankees had divided into two factions — those who wore the red sleeves and those who disdained them, with the latter camp believing that the red gear was bad luck:

Todd says Yanks pitcher Bob Shawkey, who pitched for the Bronx Bombers from 1915 through 1927, was particularly associated with the red trend, to the point that he was actually nicknamed “Mr. Red Sleeves.” This 1924 article from the Republican and Herald, a Pennsylvania paper, attributes the red trend to him (and also mentions that several Giants players were wearing red sleeves in spring training that year — perhaps a subject for further study):

Although Shawkey retired after the 1927 season, the Yanks were still wearing red sleeves in spring training the following year, as indicated in this article:

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This isn’t the first time Todd has uncovered a major uni-historical storyline. Back in 2013, he (re)discovered why the Dodgers’ front jersey numbers are red. Much like the red undershirts, the red numbers weren’t some obscure footnote at the time — whole articles were written about them. But for whatever reason, the story never became canonized and thus never became part of the uni-verse’s oral history or institutional memory. Moments like this serve as a good reality check — a way of reminding us that there’s still a lot of uniform history out there waiting to be (re)discovered. (And, of course, they also show what a great research and historian Todd is!)

Meanwhile: How can we convince the Yankees to wear red sleeves for a throwback games?

Membership Update

Reader Joe Yesh won the free membership card that I gave away in the year-end raffle. As you can see, he chose a late-1970s Penguins motif for his card — nice.

I’ll be sending Joe’s card, along with a few others, to the printer tomorrow. I have a few open slots on this batch, so anyone who signs up today will get their card very quickly.

As always, you can sign up for your own custom-designed card here, you can see all the cards we’ve designed so far here (now more than 3,300 of them!), and you can see how we produce the cards here.

Looking Ahead

There are 14 teams in the NFL playoffs — seven from the AFC and seven from the NFC — which means there are 49 possible Super Bowl matchups. For this week’s Substack piece, I’m ranking those 49 possible pairings based on their uniform matchups (including KC vs. Philly, shown above — those are the two teams with first-round byes).

You can get this piece in your in-box tomorrow morning by becoming a paying subscriber to my Substack, which I hope you’ll consider doing. Thanks!

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I have a late-afternoon appointment today at the NFL offices in Manhattan. What’s that about? Wouldn’t you like to know! Details soon, or at least soon-ish. — Paul

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Comments (33)

    I have a late-afternoon appointment today at the NFL offices in Manhattan. What’s that about?

    Tomorrow’s Headline: Paul Lukas named NFL Uniform Czar; Immediately Bans “Monochromatic Bullshit” from League.

    Seriously, how cool is the undershirt breaking news? Just when you thought the Yankees were the Cokiest of Coke teams…

    Oh man…I had heard about the red undershirt thing a while back when I read the SABR bio of Bob Shawkey, but honestly didn’t even think about the historical import. Some key grafs:

    “Throughout his career, Shawkey wore a red flannel long-sleeve shirt beneath his short-sleeve jersey. This was no ordinary undershirt: It was redder than a rose and as intense as a “desert sunset,”51 and he was famous for it. His bright sleeves made him easy to spot at the ballpark. Damon Runyon called him “Mr. Red Sleeves.”52 In 1928 Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, and other Yankees followed suit with their own red undershirts.53

    Shawkey held dual roles of pitcher and pitching coach in 1926 and 1927. He started Game 6 of the 1926 World Series and gave up seven runs; the St. Louis Cardinals “pounced on Shawkey like a wildcat on a tame white rabbit,” wrote one reporter.54 While he was no longer the pitcher he once was, he mentored the team’s young pitchers. George Pipgras won Game 2 of the 1927 World Series and won 24 games the next year, and he credited Shawkey for his success. “Bob taught me almost everything but how to wear a red undershirt,” said Pipgras. “He taught me control, put a hop on the fast one and added another wrinkle to the curve. Bob changed my pitching movement, too, and that improved my effectiveness a lot.”55”

    (The numbers refer to footnotes). Check it out: link

    Yeah. Not sure how I even stumbled upon his bio (I think it was from a tweet). Wish the footnotes actually took us to the referenced articles (I’m sure some of which were posted here today)!

    Go ask Alice!

    This is what I love. Not only current day minutiae like helmet decals falling off and inverted apostrophes but historical oddities as well. Great stuff, Paul!

    Grammatical edit:
    First line of paragraph 1 – ‘One the one hand’ should be ‘One the one hand’.

    Fascinating article today. I love interesting information that is previously unknown or has long been forgotten. Great work Todd!

    Excellent information. Interesting how we recognize and comment on inconsistencies with team uniforms present day. Baseball players wearing different colour belts, shoes, undershirts compared to teammates. Didn’t think something similar was happening in the 1920s with a few donning the red undershirts.

    Not only was it happening all the time, but almost nobody got to see it up close (no TV), and the only people who saw it in color were the people at the ballpark!

    Indeed! Not only was there no TV, but any photos from that era are all black and white, so the casual observer would have no idea that any undersleeves were red.

    For example, here’s a B&W photo of Shawkey, and we can safely assume this undershirt is white: link

    Here’s another one — and just *looking* at it, we’d assume the undersleeves are midnight blue, like the stirrups: link

    But were they? Here’s another: link

    Again, it’s impossible to tell if those were red or midnight. We’ve seen in old photos how the reds/blues tend to look “opposite” of what their actual colors were: in this Rangers photo, we KNOW the shirts are blue and the breezers are red…but yet, most of us, having no knowledge of the Rangers colors, might assume the opposite were true: link

    I wonder how many (if ANY) photos of Shawkey (or the other Yankees who followed his fashion sense) actually SHOW red sleeves, but we were just assuming they were midnight navy?

    I’m DYING for more information about “The Young and Old Men’s Going About Beefing Society,” and their “Big Bull Beefer,” Mr. Otis Herringbone. Is this a real thing or just some 1920s journalism jargon that’s way over my head?

    I really love it that wearing a red undershirt was seen as extravagant back in those days, especially when worn by the sartorially traditional Yankees. How about college football and basketball teams in the 20s wearing bright red, green, sky blue, orange or purple? That must have been like a visual anarchy. But then again, these were students, playful youngsters and not serious pros. What a great find by Todd!

    It’s easy to understand why so many baseball players of yesteryear had problems with newspaper reporters. The article about Game 6 of the 1921 World Series is absurdly snarky. What’s bizarre is that the Giants WON that game. What did Fred Toney do the author to deserve that treatment? Yeesh.

    This is fascinating. As a lifelong Yankees fan, I asked my father all the time growing up why their logo had so much red, unlike their uniform, which bucked the trend of North American teams. I love how this furthers their strange relationship with red.

    Good point! Although it’s worth noting that the “top hat” logo, which I assume is the red design you’re referring to, didn’t debut until 1947 — long after the red sleeves.

    I’d guess their first flirtation with red was their 1915 road greys with blue/red/green pinstripes. Bob Shawkey probably wore them as a rookie.

    The Yankees red white and blue must refer to the flag of the Netherlands with the name Yankees coming from the Dutch names Jan and Kees and the history of New Amsterdam. I am just kidding. The top hat says it all: the Yankees logo is pure American red, white and blue. The only Dutch connection is the team name: Jan and Kees.

    Plus their top hat logo is more of a royal or flag blue compared to the dark navy of their uniforms (though I am sure it is rendered in navy as well). I always took the disconnect between the team logo and uniform colors as a quirk in their history. The logo, sort of by necessity has to maintain a USA color palette given their nickname. Their iconic uniforms were around well before branding and logos existed anything close to how they do toady (or even 40’s when the logo was created). They simply existed before those the brand synergies and uniforms were important.

    Wow! This is fascinating stuff! Thanks for the great write-up, Paul, and the great discovery, Todd! And thanks also to Phil for the great follow-up research! It seems like red has long had a place as a tertiary color in the Yankees’ palette (as seen here: link). But seeing the Yankees looking that much more like their bitterest rivals to the north, with prominent red sleeves contrasting the navy blue, seems unimaginable! Oh, for a color photograph or a time machine!

    “….red flannel kept his soupbone, or arm, at the proper pitching temperature….”

    “A guy in a red shirt’s a fine target to shoot at.”

    “….red shirt menace….”

    I’m pretty old, but I’ve never heard “soupbone” as slang for arm.

    Great find. I imagine stuff like this is why Paul keeps doing UW. It’s what keeps me coming back.

    Again, pure gold.

    Great story about the red sleeves. One side note, isn’t the writing in those old papers just fabulous?

    Fascinating. As for why red, i think it’s because red flannel long underwear was popular in the early 20th Century. It makes sense they would wear the red flannel top late in the season as a warmer alternative to their usual white undershirts in the fall or early spring.

    100 years ago people were fussing about uniforms. And I imagine many of the newspaper readers were saying “who cares?” and the response was, “If you don’t care, then scroll, I mean read, past it”!

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