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Patching Up the Game: Baseball Uniform Embroidery

Militaria enthusiasts have long enjoyed collecting embroidered insignia – patches – since they began to emerge on the uniforms of soldiers, sailors and marines and airmen. From the earliest times when embroidered rank began to be a part of the uniform, someone has collected them. By the Great War when unit insignia began to propagate onto the olive drab wool uniforms (at the war’s end), collectors on the homefront were awaiting to fill their collections with the dozens upon dozens of colorful patches.

This WWI Marine Uniform has a beautiful shoulder patch of the 11th Marine Regiment, 5TH Marine Brigade.

I can imagine the young boy admiring his father’s old doughboy WWI uniform that he discovered tucked away in a trunk in the attic or perhaps even his father’s few spare (unused) unit insignia kept safely in a wooden box on the dresser. The young boy asks his father for one and dad lovingly agrees to hand one or two over to the interested son. The young son then shows the patches to his friend who also has a veteran father with a similar cache of insignia and a trade is made, igniting the popular aspect of the militaria hobby that continues to this day. It may just be my perception, but a seemingly smaller segment of patch collecting centers on patches that adorn professional baseball uniforms.

In the 19th century, baseball uniforms were sparse in adornments. Some bore no indication at all that would lend to their team names or home cities. Uniforms in the earliest days might even lack color. As the game matured, uniforms began to be trimmed with piping, pinstripes and adorned with soutache (braiding encircling the collar, sleeves and the edged of the button-faces). Player numbers made an experimental appearance on the 1916 Cleveland uniforms (and again with the 1923 Cardinals) but wouldn’t begin to be widely adopted until the 1929 Yankees. Numbers on the uniform fronts started in 1953 with Brooklyn and though other teams have dabbled in this practice, only the Dodgers have remained consistent (the smaller red numerals remain on the lower right, at present).

Another uniform decoration that has become common-place with the modern game; a practice that is widely accepted as a means to commemorate special occasions, significant events and anniversaries is the affixing of patches to the jersey sleeves. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first appearance of a commemorative patch first appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century, “Uniform patches have long been used to commemorate or promote special events. The first such patch used on a major league uniform was worn by the 1907 Chicago White Sox on the left sleeve of their road jerseys. The circular patch commemorated the club’s 1906 World Series victory over their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Cubs.”

Rabbit Maranville of the Boston Braves, 1930 with the Boston 300th anniversary patch (image source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

When the United States was drawn into WWI, Major League Baseball answered the call. Some teams began to visibly demonstrate their patriotism and support of the citizens (that were being called up to serve) by decorating their players’ uniforms with embroidered emblems stitched to their jerseys. Brooklyn and Chicago of the National League along with Chicago, Detroit, Washington, and Cleveland of the American League participated in 1917-18 with patriotic sleeve patches that were attached either to the chest or sleeves. With the start of the 1925 season, the National League set out to commemorate their 50th season with a patch to be worn by all of the NL’s teams. In 1930, both of Boston’s major league teams wore sleeve patches to pay tribute to the city’s 300th anniversary. In the season preceding when New York City would play host to the 1939 World’s Fair, all of the city’s teams (Dodgers, Giants and Yankees) wore a patch to recognize the event throughout that year. To mark the sport’s alleged centennial, all major and many minor league clubs wore a patch to mark the occasion.

With the United States fully immersed in World War II and her citizens weary from the want of more than a decade of a depressed economy, promoting healthy living. In a period news article, an officer of the Ft. Des Moines WAAC training center emphasized the role of each American, “you’re big job now,“ said the WAAC lieutenant, “is to train yourself to be of worth to the government; first, train yourself physically to withstand the terrific strain which we must all endure; second, you must be mentally stable.” This was the message of the Hale American Health program that was promoted by many sports organizations, most-notably throughout all levels of baseball. Beginning in 1942, the HALE American “Health” shield patch began showing up on all major and many minor league teams’ uniforms. As the war progressed, the “HEALTH” lettering was dropped in favor of red and white stripes.

The Health patch found its way onto military team uniforms during the war in different variations. In researching photographs, most of the patches adorning military baseball team uniforms were with the red and white vertical stripes. One variation that I have, as yet, been unsuccessful in locating a real-world example of has “U.S.” superimposed over the vertical stripes.

This 1955 jacket or sweater patch originates from an Air Force team from the Kunsan (Korea) Air Base and was most-likely, locally made.

My Kunsan Air Base baseball team patch is fully-embroidered and appears (by the construction) to have been made locally in Korea.

The practice of patching military baseball uniforms continues much in the same way today as with professional teams. Collectors need to be savvy to discern what is authentic or reproduction or to distinguish the difference between military and civilian baseball patches. Photographic evidence helps to provide some measure of provenance (photo albums from the veteran who wore the original baseball uniform; the source of the patch) and should be paired with the patch, if at all possible.  Unlike military uniform adornments, patches from service uniforms are rather scarce. Though I have been searching, I have only successfully landed one such patch for my collection.

In an upcoming article that I am presently researching, I will be focusing on another armed force patch that was worn on a handful of major league uniforms by veterans who returned from WWII. Stay tuned.

 

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