The following is the fifth of an occasional series by Charles Fountain on the history and culture of spring training.
St. Patrick’s Day is spring training’s grand holiday. In the old days — we’re talking John McGraw old days — the game had a considerable Irish character, and players had a particular penchant for sharing their evenings with adult beverages. St. Patrick’s Day also falls during Lent, and local bishops frequently granted dispensations from fasts and obligations, which gave it extra significance for an Irish-Catholic ballplayer who may have given up, say, drinking.
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, fiercely proud of his Celtic heritage, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at Dodgertown with lavish parties that became Vero Beach legend. There was green beer and green plastic derbies and players and writers partied alongside one another deep into the evening, and none of it ever made the newspapers.
But those celebrations were less about baseball and St. Patrick’s Day, and more about individual baseball people and St. Patrick’s Day. Baseball’s embrace of the Irish holiday as its own began with the Cincinnati Reds in 1978. Cincinnati is a city better known for its German heritage than its Irish, but in ‘78, the Reds took the field for a Grapefruit League game in Tampa wearing uniforms that had green where the red should have been. The cap, the uniform piping, the “C” on the chest — all green. It was jarring, like the television set had suddenly gone all kerflooey and the color needed adjusting. Only the color couldn’t be adjusted. No matter how many times the fans blinked and rubbed their eyes, the Reds had turned green.
Fans had never seen anything quite like it. Baseball uniforms had started to get weird in the 1970s, the decade of wide lapels, open collars, two-inch heels, and leisure suits. It started with the multi-option green-and-gold uniforms of the Oakland A’s. Those could perhaps be written off to the eccentricity of A’s owner Charles O. Finley. But soon we had the powder blue road uniforms of the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, the all-black or all-yellow uniforms of the Pirates, the hideous all-red uniforms of the Cleveland Indians, and then, finally, the absurdly awful short-pants option for the Chicago White Sox.
But those St. Patrick’s Day uniforms of the Reds were the most surprising of all. Remember, this was decades before baseball teams thought of offering their caps and jerseys in every color of the rainbow. However garish some 1970s uniforms may have become, they all remained in the team’s traditional colors. This was like the anti-Reds uniform. The baseball Hall of Fame for years included one of the Reds’ St. Patrick’s Day uniforms in their exhibits of the games historical uniforms.
Justly so, for it has become historical artifact, opening new doors in the world of baseball merchandising. The originals were mothballed, to be worn again on subsequent St. Patrick’s Days. But if a player left the Reds, his St. Patrick’s Day jersey was sold off to fans, the proceeds donated to charity. A modest $25-$50 were all those early jerseys cost. At the height of the baseball memorabilia craze a few years back they were fetching $2,000-$3,000 on the resale market.
The Reds unknowingly spawned a lucrative niche market in spring training St. Patrick’s Day merchandise. The Red Sox were the second team to introduce a St. Patrick’s Day wrinkle to their uniform, wearing green hats March 17, 1990, then adding the green jerseys in 2004. Today virtually every major league wears green caps or jerseys, uses green bases, or stencils a shamrock into the infield dirt or the outfield grass on St. Patrick’s Day. Even those teams that don’t wear some manner of green appointment on the field have green-trimmed merchandise for sale in the souvenir stand. And they are big sellers.
What is the saying? On St. Patrick’s Day everybody is Irish? A green cap from your favorite team will prove it.
Charles Fountain is a journalism professor at Northeastern and has authored a book on the history and culture of baseball spring trainng, titled “Under the March Sun.”