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The long history of baseball's most glorious fashion accessory: The stirrup sock

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Baseball uniforms are a unique beast. The shirts have buttons (though, for some reason, they don't count as "formal wear" at weddings), the pants have belts and the players need to wear hats to keep the sun out of their eyes. But nothing is as unique to baseball as the stirrup sock.

The tradition can be traced back to 1868, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first team to expose their socked legs.

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MLB's official historian, John Thorn, says that the team's owners were "trying to create a sensation," presumably to boost attendance and the team's profile. Pulling up the pants to more closely resemble a cricketer's uniform also had one other benefit: "High socks displayed manly calves, which the ladies liked."

But Cincinnati's players just wore regular socks during that time. The garment known as the stirrup wouldn't come into existence until 1905. That year, Nap Lajoie of the Cleveland Naps (named for Lajoie and not, sadly, for the supreme joy they received from afternoon snoozes), would play in only 65 games due to blood poisoning after he was spiked on a slide. Since clothing dyes weren't colorfast in those days, it was assumed that the dye in the fabric had seeped into Lajoie's wound, causing the injury. 

The only solution: Add a white "sanitary" sock and cover that up with the colored hose, which had a cut out around the ankle so players could still fit into their cleats.

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It was that injury which led to one of baseball's most unique and enduring looks. As Paul Lukas of UniWatch told MLB.com: 

"The stirrup has become part of the visual signature of baseball as no other sport used it. For a certain generation, myself included, it was kind of a key moment when you got your first Little League uniform and got to pull up those stirrups. I remember how official that felt."

But while a certain sect of today's baseball fans thrill to the look of the stirrup, its purpose was actually to mimic the original stockings as closely as possible. As Lukas said:

"What's funny, of course, is that stirrups were meant to simulate a solid stocking. The original opening of stirrups back in 1910, or whenever it was, were so small, the idea was to not show the opening."

Now, the look has endured for over a century -- even if its details have changed drastically over the years. The Red Sox might be known as the Blue Sox had they not changed colors in 1908.

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(courtesy of Marc Okkonen) 

That change was largely the end of stirrup innovation until the 1920s, when striped stirrups showed up, bringing about a new era of human beauty. Standouts include the New York Giants' stirrups in 1921:

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Or the St. Louis Cardinals' socks in 1923, which featured candy cane options. Of course, the Cards would change their look to one you may be more familiar with by the next season:

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Historic teams would even have multiple looks to match their differing uniforms -- foreshadowing the copious alternate uniform options of the 21st century. The Brooklyn Dodgers wore gray stirrups on the road in 1931:

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And the Reds inverted the colors of their socks between 1934-36, becoming an alternate reality version of themselves on the road:

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(courtesy of Marc Okkonen)

In 1936, the Red Sox finally unveiled the sock that would become known as the "Red Sox" sock, a beautiful little number with broad stripes.

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It would later be picked up by plenty of teams, including the Orioles, who debuted theirs in 1957.

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Stirrups were largely unchanged for the next few decades, but the 1960s saw a revolution -- just as they did in the rest of pop culture. The 1966 Kansas City Athletics became the first team to use a colored sanitary sock. That shock of gold by the foot is still something to marvel at.

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It was around this time that the next great leap in stirrups came, as players started stretching their stirrups by pulling them higher and higher. By the 1970s, players were pulling their socks higher and higher -- a look that became known as "high-cuts." According to Jim Bouton in "Ball Four," Frank Robinson may have even started the trend. descriptionAs Bouton wrote: "Like, you're not allowed to cut your baseball socks. But if you don't cut your socks you're nothing ... The higher your stirrups the cooler you are. Your legs look long and cool instead of dumpy and hot." 

Robinson may have also discovered a whole new way to put on your socks. To make sure his stirrups never sagged, Robinson taped his socks up against the sanitary and then put his pants on inside-out. When he pulled them up, they were already in place. That sounds like a confusing way to get dressed, but a great way to look good all day long. 

Of course, just as fashion is always evolving, so too must stirrup socks. The long-stretched stirrups look would soon give way as players began pulling their pants down, looking like they were wearing athletic culottes with just a peak of stirrup around the ankle. 

Players like Greg Maddux even began opting for, horror of horrors, the 2-in-1: A sock with the stirrup printed on it

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Eventually we reached a point, a nadir, where hardly any stirrups were shown. With many ballplayers opting for long, baggy trousers, the few that were left tended to just go with the high cuff look, showing only a solid-colored stocking. While it didn't have the same allure as the stirrup, Jim Thome at least made the look work. 

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But the past few years have seen a resurgence in both the striped and stirrup socks. When he was with the Cardinals, Brendan Ryan was one of the more notable players to bust out the classic stripes.  

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Then the Rays introduced a brand new "throwback" with navy and teal mixing together.

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Brad Miller, one of the finest stirrup wearers in the game, looked particularly sharp in the Mariners' teal and blue options. Unlike other players who wanted to show off their big league reputation by pulling their pants down, Miller is proud of his high cuffs. After having to wear the "Clemson cut pants -- tight all the way down to the ankles" -- while in college, Miller told MLB.com that he was thrilled when he reached the Minors. He thought, "'Shoot I can finally wear my pants up again,'" he said. "I've never been a pants down guy, I look funky." 

Miller even helped recruit some of his teammates to join him in the glory of the stirrup sock. "They'll see me putting them on every day," said the sock enthusiast. "When they want to switch [their socks] up, I'm handing them out. I'm pushing them in the right direction."

While the shortstop "was pretty excited" by the new striped socks the Mariners introduced last year, a move to Tampa Bay over the offseason will allow him to continue wearing top-notch hosiery: 

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According to Lukas, one modern stirrup-wearer stands out over the rest. "One of the best looking players in a uniform right now is Sean Gilmartin of the Mets," said the uniform aficionado. "His blousing, his level of high cuff-ery, the tightness versus bagginess of his uniform ... he's what a ballplayer is supposed to look like." Even with that effusive praise, Lukas admits that he'd like to see a little more of an opening on the stirrup. 

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Though baseball may not ever see stirrup hegemony again, with every player sporting the look, we may be at a high point of personal customization. Jesse Chavez opted for the Elizabethan pants look with his two-in-one socks in the games that he started. 

Bryce Harper switched between stirrups, high cuffs, low pants and every other fashion under the sun last year (even if he was best with his socks showing), and Andrew McCutchen even became a fashion designer.

After seeing Adam Jones' striped socks with the Orioles, McCutchen talked to clubhouse manager Scott Bonnet and designed his own non-stirrup socks to be worn the rest of the year. He even turned them into an arm band. 

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As Bonnet told MLB.com, this was all McCutchen's handiwork. "Andrew picked out the sock that he wanted and he did a color code scheme the way he wanted to do it." 

Stirrups may not dominate the game, but a player's ability to show off his unique style and pizazz has never been higher. As Miller said, "I definitely do notice when guys on the other team wear them and they look sharp. There's a lot of good looks out there."

And really, isn't that all we really want? 

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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