Academic journal article Nine

Rooting for the Clothes: The Materialization of Memory in Baseball's Throwback Uniforms

Academic journal article Nine

Rooting for the Clothes: The Materialization of Memory in Baseball's Throwback Uniforms

Article excerpt

At their essence, sports jerseys function as symbolic materializations that foster a constitutive identity and unity between fans, players, and cities or regions. When new teams are created, often the team logo and uniform are the first manifestations of the team's identity. These designs are so important that many franchises consult with professional marketing firms on new designs intended to connect with new fans and maximize merchandizing streams) Furthermore, when teams acquire new players, the first act as a new member of the team often involves a ceremonial press conference that is opened by the new player donning the team's jersey (a similar practice takes place during amateur drafts for new players). The jersey thus signifies both an identity and a membership while existing as a transformative object with its own magical provenance: the wearer, whether on the field or off, defers their individual identity for the sake of a team. As such, jerseys are constantly put in place as performance pieces, as when uniforms are raised to arena rafters to give enduring presence to their greatness, or when city statues are draped in team jerseys to unite the citizenry. These uniforms come to symbolize more than just a team; they can become transcendent icons that represent a city, even a country, and its enduring memories.

In the United States, the most enduring uniforms belong to the nation's pastime: baseball. With several teams founding their identities in uniform designs established almost a century ago, the symbolic power of uniforms has reached unprecedented levels in a society that is enamored with nostalgia. Major League Baseball (MLB) franchises have sought to exploit this infatuation by unveiling and donning "throwback" or "retro" uniforms on a regular basis. These garments mimic the uniform histories of earlier teams, utilizing new fabrics and sewing techniques to meet contemporary expectations for uniforms while appearing as a facsimile of a bygone era. As proof of the popularity of throwbacks during the past decade, every MLB franchise--save the Colorado Rockies--has deployed some version at least once.

Given that baseball uniforms first appeared in the 1840s, MLB clubs have an almost infinite number of throwback uniforms to delve through. With such a library of offerings, the commemorative and nostalgic functions that throwbacks provide is occasionally placed in contrast with histories that reopen divisive franchise relocations. With uniforms serving as the materialization of this divisiveness, multiple teams throughout the major leagues have employed throwback jerseys that highlight their clashing histories. Specifically, the Seattle Mariners recently wore throwbacks to the Seattle Pilots, a franchise that moved to Milwaukee in 1970 and became the Milwaukee Brewers. Conversely, the Brewers have also worn throwbacks to the Milwaukee Braves, a franchise that originated in Boston, moved to Milwaukee to start the 1952 MLB season, and then moved to Atlanta before the 1966 MLB season. The Washington (DC) Nationals, a franchise with roots in Montreal, has ignored Expos throwbacks and instead has used Washington Senators jerseys, recalling two earlier franchises that did exist as the Senators but relocated to two different cities. After the 1960 season, the Senators moved to Minnesota (and became the Twins) while, simultaneously, a new expansion franchise was given to Washington, thus keeping a professional baseball franchise in the nation's capital. That version of the Washington Senators left DC after the 1971 season, moving to the Dallas area to become the Texas Rangers.

These complicated, contextual, and, at times, contradictory histories make throwback uniforms, as nostalgic symbols loaded with meanings and memories, appealing targets for rhetorical criticism. Specifically, throwbacks force us to consider how the material representation of history is fraught with questions regarding collective memory, commemoration, and the impact of materialized style. …

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