Baseball and socks appeal

Posted: August 29, 2011

The high sock, once so esteemed that teams were named for it, has largely vanished from view in American baseball - covered, smothered, by what Phillies chairman Bill Giles uncharitably terms "pajama pants."

A handful of players have resisted this assault on American hosiery, this onslaught of the falling cuff. The most notable in Philadelphia, of late, is 6-foot-4 rightfielder Hunter Pence, who joined the team a month ago.

Pence is all leg and energy. His high socks are a feast of red as he digs in at the plate, a whirling blur of rojo as he rounds the bases.

When forced by a Little League coach to wear his pants high at age 12, Pence found it far more comfortable, like wearing shorts, and never stopped. He cuffs his pants higher than almost any player, at the knee, the way it was done a century ago.

"I guess it's a dying tradition," he said. "I'm glad they still let us, though."

Jessica Swan, 24, of Norristown, wore a Pence shirt to the ballpark the other night - along with a new pair of high red socks.

"Shows my true fanhood," she said.

Perhaps it is telling that her previous crush, Cliff Lee, whom she cast aside for Pence, wears long pants.

Old school

Every Phillie wears high socks, but most hide them with long pants.

Roy Oswalt wears long pants on days when he's not pitching, but always displays his high socks on the mound.

"When I put on short pants I know it's game day," Oswalt said. "It's old school, and that's kind of like how I am. I'm not one of these guys that takes the rubber band out of the bottom of their pants or does the bell-bottom-type pants. That's new-era stuff."

Ryan Howard, the first baseman, wears perhaps the lowest hem on the team, maybe in all of baseball. His pants cling with elastic to the bottom of his heel, nearly to the ground.

"I have big feet and skinny ankles," explained Howard. "I've always just preferred to wear my pants long. I like a little loose fit. Almost like I'm wearing sweatpants."

Shane Victorino, centerfielder, wears his pants long and baggy, but only because that's the prevailing style.

"If they made a rule and said pants up, I'd do it," he said. "There's no reason I wear my pants down. There's just parts of the game that change like that. In a hitter's count, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, how many times do you see a fastball? Whereas before you knew a four-seamer was coming at you. Things change. That's just the game. One person makes a change, and everyone kind of rides with it."

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins used to show high socks on Sundays as a homage to the old Negro League players. But every time he slid, he'd have to readjust his cuffs, and it became a bother.

He said he gave up short pants completely when he switched to a hightop shoe.

"I'm only 5-7," he said, "so I can't wear hightop shoes and high pants. My legs would look too short."

"You got to look good," he added. "A lot of people are watching."

Pitcher Joe Blanton wears short pants for function, not fashion. "For me, when I lift the leg, it doesn't feel the same," he said of long pants. "I feel my leg kind of catches." Pitcher Ryan Madson says he simply wouldn't look good showing his high socks. "I have skinny legs," he said. "I have chicken legs."

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says all Phillies minor-league players are required to wear pants with high cuffs, exposing their high socks.

"In the minors it's more about a solidarity thing," Amaro said. "More traditional. We want to make sure we concentrate on it being a team effort. We let the guys be individuals when they come up here."

The first thing Mike Stutes, a rookie relief pitcher, did when he got to the big leagues this year was to let his cuffs fall.

"Immediately," he said. "That was a big thing getting called up. Pants down."

Michael Schwimer, a rookie pitcher just called up to the team, has always worn short pants showing socks and didn't change here.

He is so tall he could never get long pants to fit right, and what started out for function has now become habit. "Makes me feel more athletic," he said. "It's all mental."

Create a sensation

John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, said that when the sport began in the 1830s and 1840s, all players wore long pants.

In the 1860s, the owner of the Cincinnati team, borrowing from his experience in cricket, shortened players' pants, "trying to create a sensation," Thorn said. "High socks displayed manly calves, which the ladies liked."

The team was named the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

In the early 1900s, Nap Lajoie, a former Phillie, was spiked and nearly died from a blood infection that was believed then to have been caused by colored dye in his sock.

This led to the transition to the colored stirrup worn over a clean white tube sock, known as a sani sock.

For decades, the stirrup revealed barely any of the white sock beneath it. In the 1960s, players like Frank Robinson sewed in extra fabric so the stirrup was nearly all strap, a thin line of color climbing up a white sock.

This led to the invention of the two-in-one, a white sock with a colored stripe down the side, an innovation that all but ensured the demise of the stirrup. Phillies outfielder Ben Francisco wears a two-in-one today, but fans would never know it, because his socks are covered by his long pants.

One of the greatest and perhaps most unappreciated advances in stirrup history came in 1992 when Frank Coppenbarger, the Phillies' clubhouse manager, suggested that a blue Liberty Bell be added to the bottom of the team's red stirrup. It was a work of art, fitting on many levels.

After all, what is baseball if not an expression of American freedom?

Alas, by the 1990s, both high sock and stirrup had all but disappeared from baseball, hidden by long pants.

Some see this as a tragedy.

"Baseball has a hosiery heritage, that's why we have the White Sox and Red Sox," said Paul Lukas, who writes a blog and column for ESPN on the aesthetics of athletics. "It was part of the uniform, how the team identified itself, showed its color. I really miss that, so I think of this as a really, really low time in baseball visuals."

Down to the ankles

The fact is, pant legs in baseball had been falling for 100 years. About 1900, virtually all players wore their pants like Hunter Pence. By the 1950s, players such as Ted Williams began dropping their pants to mid-calf.

"Unexpected problems arose as a result of the fad," according to a history of the baseball uniform on the Hall of Fame website. "In the early 1950s, umpire Bill Stewart called for an end to the long pants, citing difficulties in determining the location of a batter's knee, and thus the bottom of the strike zone."

Many say it was George Hendrick, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, who in the late 1980s pioneered pants down to the ankles.

Gary "Sarge" Matthews, the former Phillie outfielder and current broadcaster, says Hendrick knew he would be fined, and would tell team executives: "I'm going to keep my pants all the way down, so what's it going to be for the whole year?"

Lukas says former Phillie Jim Thome - who, when he played in Philadelphia, wore the Liberty Bell stirrup - represents the ideal.

Thome wears his pants mid-calf, what Lukas believes is the iconic baseball image - not too high, not too low.

Furthermore, Lukas says, Thome is one of the best and last practitioners of "blousing," where a player pulls the elastic in his pant leg up to the knee, then neatly folds over the remaining fabric, forming a perfect, slightly flaring cuff at mid-calf.

"Jim Thome is the master at pant cuffery," said Lukas.

Thome could blouse a cuff and hit 600 career home runs. What more could one ask of a ballplayer?


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at mvitez@phillynews.com, 215-854-5639, @michaelvitez on Twitter.

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