It’s been about eight months since I first saw the above photo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig wearing Yankees sweaters on Kiyoshi’s blog, but I don’t think there’s been a week that’s gone by that I haven’t come back to it. The photo has become one of my favorite fall points of reference, but it’s also been quite a curiosity, leaving me to wonder where exactly those sweaters come. At first I suspected they were just something that the players might have ordered for themselves to wear on off days. But then a couple weeks back while watching a football game, the idea came to me that maybe the sweaters were some sort of warm up gear for the players, akin to the windbreakers and nylon jackets that we see today. With this in mind, I began searching and that one photo of Ruth and Gehrig quickly lead to others. Images of players sitting on the bench wearing cream colored cardigans covered in logos, team photos with all the players wearing identical navy sweaters, teams taking the field in matching shawl collar sweaters.
It became clear that these sweaters weren’t just some special order thing done by a small group of players, but that they were standard issue for every team throughout the league. I soon learned that 1869 when professional baseball was founded to 1925 these jackets were a key part of any team’s uniform, worn during the latter months of the season when temperatures began to dropp off. Up until 1898 all sweaters were actually shipped in from Scotland, but overtime teams switched over and began employing a small batch of American craftsmen (and women) who would knit them by hand. During these early days of baseball each team had their own distinct sweaters, that either copied or contrasted their regular jerseys, with their team logos proudly emblazoned on the front.
With the backstory in place, I’m able to address the other burning question: why do I keep returning to these sweaters? Well for one, they’re pretty remarkable pieces of early sports memorabilia, remnants of a time when uniforms were about the pride of the players, not just making money. More importantly though, those baseball sweaters are, to me, the perfect shawl collar cardigan. Well sans the logos that is. They have the longer length of a chunky cardigan or even a sportcoat, but they’re still slimmed down and tight in the body, which is quite rare for thicker sweaters that normally just drape freely.
The shawl collar itself is also one of the most unique designs I’ve ever seen, especially for this era. The common shawl roll is still there, but the sweaters can also be buttoned all the way up, with two or three hidden buttons that sit behind the collar roll. This is not only an incredibly well-placed detail, but it’s a practical one as well, allowing players to seal off the entire jacket on those particularly brisk game-days All in all, these are the types of shawl collar sweaters I’d like to see more of, they aren’t the flimsy, thin pieces of garbage that you see in fast fashion stores these days, they’re burly, field ready cardigans that hit that ever-desirable sweet spot between formal jacket and casual sweater.