The history of MLB rocking the blues

ByPaul Lukas ESPN logo
Monday, May 7, 2018

The Phillies have created a buzz in the uni-verse the past two weeks by debuting their new maroon-trimmed powder blue throwback alternate uniforms for a pair of Thursday home games. The throwback designs aren't perfect -- the jerseys should have been zippered, not button-fronts, and the Phils didn't spring for matching maroon undershirts -- but it's still great to see the old powder blues on the diamond.

Predictably, this has led to many fans saying, "They should go back to those full time!" And who can blame them? It's a fun look:

Of course, the Phillies' original powder blues from the 1970s and '80s were worn on the road, not at home, so it was a bit odd to see them being worn in Philly. But as Phillies beat writer Matt Breen points out, there's some precedent for that. Back in 1972 -- the first year that the Phils wore blue on the road -- they tried wearing the powder blues for a home game against the Braves on June 10. Unfortunately, they got thumped, 15-3, and that was the end of that experiment.

Imagine if the Phils had won that day -- they might have kept on wearing the powder blues for occasional home games. Other teams might have done the same, and the entire powder blue era might have turned out differently, with teams sometimes wearing the blues at home, not just for road trips.

Actually, at least one other MLB team did tinker with wearing powder blues at home during the 1970s. That would be the 1975 Rangers. But they didn't have the full courage of their convictions. Instead of wearing their full powder blue road uni at home, they paired the blue road jersey with their regular white home pants.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that powder blues started a lot earlier than you might think. Although the blue style is mostly associated with the 1970s (the thinking at the time was that road grays were too drab, and teams also wanted to capitalize on the spread of color TV), the first team to wear blue on the road was actually the 1941 Cubs, who debuted a blue road vest that year. The design lasted only two seasons before the Cubbies reverted back to road grays.

But blue uniforms made a comeback in 1944, when the Dodgers experimented with a powder blue uniform made of satin fabric, instead of the usual wool flannel. The satin style, which a few teams dabbled in during the 1940s (although no other team tried a blue version), was supposed to be shinier and more reflective, making the players more visible during night games. The Dodgers mothballed the concept after one season, but it returned as a throwback in 2011.

The modern powder blue era began, or at least had its first rumblings, in 1969, when two new expansion teams -- the Seattle Pilots and the Montreal Expos -- both went with blue for their inaugural road uniforms. But MLB uniforms were still being made in flannel, and the blue didn't look particularly vibrant when rendered in that fabric.

Powder blues really began hitting their stride in the early 1970s, when MLB teams began switching from flannels to polyester stretch-knits. The new fabrics allowed for much more saturated colors, and the blues really popped. A key benchmark came in 1972, when the American League MVP and the National League Cy Young Award winner -- White Sox slugger Dick Allen and Phillies ace Steve Carlton, respectively -- both came from powder-blue-clad teams, which gave the blue style increased legitimacy.

Powder blues picked up steam throughout the rest of the 1970s and hit their high-water mark in 1980 and '81, when there were 11 blue-clad teams. Two of them -- the Phillies and the Royals -- faced each other in the 1980 World Series, marking the first time powder blues had appeared in the Fall Classic.

But the pendulum soon began swinging back the other way. Throughout the rest of the 1980s, MLB teams gradually moved away from many of the uniform trends that had defined the previous decade, including pullover jerseys, elastic-waistband pants, Technicolor chromatic schemes -- and, yes, powder blues. By 1991, there were only two blue-clad holdouts remaining: the Expos and the Royals. The following year, they gave in and switched to road grays, bringing the powder blue era to a close.

Well, mostly to a close. Once powder blues disappeared, it didn't take long for them to become nostalgically fashionable, which meant teams could start reviving them as throwbacks. Sometimes it feels like something's been lost in translation from the 1970s designs to the way today's players wear their uniforms (it can be a bit jarring to see a player with powder blue pants going down to his shoe tops), but it's still great anytime we get a chance to see the old blues on the field again.

But here's the thing: It's fine to wear powder blues as a one-off throwback or a once-a-week alternate, but so far, no team has had the guts or gumption to revive powder blues as their primary road uni. Obviously, it wouldn't work for every team, but if you're, say, the Royals, Blue Jays or Phillies, powder blue is in your DNA. Come on, guys -- stop keeping your powder dry and go full-on blue.

Paul Lukas really misses those early Expos uniforms. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandiseor just ask him a question? Contact him here.