Last week, spring training baseball gave us the indelible image of Chris Berman in a San Francisco Giants uniform.
Lighthearted hijinks are endemic to spring training, and the Giants thought it’d be a laugh riot to have Berman guest-manage the team for a game. They were correct in this assumption.
Seeing Berman’s Mr. Potato Head-looking ass — with his twiggy arms and dumpy mid-section — stuffed into a baseball uniform like some kind of sentient kielbasa was either thoroughly entertaining or deeply unsettling, depending on how you feel about ruddy, overweight men in form-fitting polyester.
This image, however, would never have been possible were it not for the MLB, and its strange tradition of having its managers wear the team uniform.
Baseball is the only professional sport where this occurs. Basketball, hockey and soccer coaches all wear suits, while football coaches dress like hedge-fund douchebags at the annual corporate barbecue. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t mandated by MLB bylaws. The MLB rulebook says a team’s players must all wear matching uniforms, but it makes no mention of managers. Managers choose to dress up like players.
It wasn’t always this way. Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack’s classy attire earned him the reputation as “the grand old gentleman of the game.” Mack won five World Series, nine pennants and 3,731 games over an astonishing 50-year career as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, but he’s perhaps best known for looking dapper as all hell while doing it, managing games in a three-piece suit and matching hat.
Not to get all “things were better in the past,” but I kinda long for the bygone era of sartorial refinement in baseball. A baseball uniform is unflattering on all but the most chiseled of bodies, and has a way of highlighting a manager’s FUPA in the harshest way possible.
Mack got all dapper out of historical precedent. That is, it’s actually more historically accurate for managers to wear suits than uniforms. In the 19th century, manager referred to a team’s business manager — as in, the executive responsible for booking a team’s transportation and managing its payroll, according to John Thorn, MLB’s official historian. And being a businessman, the manager dressed accordingly.
The manager had no say over lineup decisions, however. Those were handled by a player-coach known as the team “captain.” And the captain wore the team uniform because he participated on the field.
Player-coaches went out of vogue over the 20th century, as teams moved to having a dedicated manager in the dugout. Managers such as Mack differentiated by dressing in suits, but most hewed to the captain tradition of wearing the team uniform. And over time, the uniformed field general became ingrained in the culture of baseball to the point that no one really questions it. Many managers even enjoy wearing the same duds as their players. “It’s better than wearing a suit,” according to former White Sox manager Robin Ventura.
One can easily understand Ventura’s point-of-view. Unbecoming as they may be, a baseball uniform is much more comfortable than a three-piece suit during a humid, mid-August day game. Just ask one of college basketball’s infamously sweaty head coaches, such as former Maryland coach Gary Williams, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl or current Arizona coach Sean Miller. As these men will attest, a business suit does not breathe.
NCAA basketball coaches operate under a similar kind of groupthink: They wear suits because that’s just what a coach does. (Notable exceptions include Western Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who wears tracksuits, and legendary rageaholic Bobby Knight, who preferred red sweaters.)
And the NBA has long been known as the most fashionable of all professional sports leagues, for both players and coaches alike. Chuck Daly and Pat Riley are two of the most recognizable coaches in NBA history, in part because they were such dandies. Daly’s players nicknamed him “Daddy Rich” because of his taste for fine clothing, and Riley oversaw the “Showtime” Lakers in a slick suit and even slicker hair.
Football coaches exist somewhere in the middle. The standard head football coach’s outfit is a team polo and a pair of khakis (pleated, if they’re on Alabama head coach Nick Saban), and maybe a visor or pair of Oakley sunglasses if they want to be a little flashy.
Supposedly, this is to boost merchandise sales. Because who doesn’t want to pony up for the same Kansas City Chiefs poncho that Andy Reid wears on the sideline?
Well, for one, me. Again, at the risk of sounding like a Fashion-Knower, I prefer my coaches in a suit and tie (no matter the risk of perspiration). After all, even Berman wouldn’t have looked bad in this: