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Thursday, December 2, 2004
Updated: August 19, 5:11 PM ET
Where the jerseys have no name

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

L.A. is generally known as a place for people who crave attention, but at least 25 Angelenos will have decidedly lower profiles next year. That's because the Dodgers have announced that they're removing the player surnames from the backs of all their jerseys.

Uni Watch generally approves of the old-school nameless look. But check out the Dodgers' rationale for the move, as stated on the team's Web site:

"Owner Frank McCourt, Jr. has said the decision was prompted by a desire to stress a team approach and not focus on the individual." How quaint! And for an encore, McCourt will reduce hot dog prices to a nickel and move the team back to Brooklyn.

McCourt might soon discover that the rah-rah team approach is obsolete in today's ego-obsessed sports world, where athletes (and, um, uniform columnists) routinely refer to themselves in the third person. The Mets learned that in 1999, when they removed the names from their jerseys.

Players began grumbling about it almost immediately, and the names were quietly restored the following season.

Jersey names were the brainchild of White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who added monikers to the team's uniforms in 1960. Scorecard vendors protested, but they needn't have worried -- the names were only a blur from the grandstand. But they were sharp and clear on TV, which was the whole point.

Many teams in the upstart American Football League copied Veeck's innovation later that year (the stodgy NFL didn't get with the program until 1970), and a trend was born. More teams and leagues climbed on board until jersey names became nearly universal throughout pro sports in the late 1970s. They're now mandatory in all the major pro leagues except Major League Baseball, where the Dodgers will join the Yankees as the only fully nameless teams. (The Red Sox and Giants are nameless at home, but wear names on the road.)

The initial custom -- now spelled out by the leagues as a requirement -- was for jersey names to be surnames. But almost from the start, there have been exceptions. Journeyman A's infielder Wayne Causey appears to have been the first to go creative with his nom de uni, wearing "Kooz" in 1963. Jets linebacker (and future pro wrestler) Wahoo McDaniel wore "Wahoo" in 1964; NBA sharpshooter Pete Maravich wore "Pistol" in the early '70s; and when Ichiro Suzuki joined the Mariners in 2001, the team got permission for him to wear his first name, as he'd previously done in Japan.

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro cause a stir by having his first name appear on his uniform.
A selective timeline of other key moments in jersey name history shapes up like this (with special thanks to reader Stephen Kraljic, who contributed several items on the list):

1969: Slugger Ken Harrelson of the Indians, already notable for being the first player to have worn batting gloves, wears his nickname, "Hawk," on the back of his jersey. His place in baseball uni history assured, he later becomes a pro golfer but fails to make an impact on that sport's lame-o attire.

1971: Pitcher Jim Grant tells the A's equipment manager to stitch his nickname, "Mudcat," onto his jersey. With gimmick-happy team owner Charles Finley encouraging the trend, a handful of other Oakland players wear nontraditional jersey names over the next several years, including Jim Hunter ("Catfish"), Vida Blue ("Vida," which he later wears with the Giants), Billy Conigliaro ("Billy C.," in response to his brother having worn "Tony C." while with the Angels), and Dick Allen (who wears "Wampum" and uni number 60, a reference to his hometown and high school graduating class).

Early 1970s: Elvin Hayes of the NBA's Baltimore Bullets takes the court wearing "E," and then "Elvin." Teammates Wes Unseld ("Wes") and Nick Weatherspoon ("'Spoon") also get into the act during this period, as does Walt Bellamy ("Bells") of the Atlanta Hawks.

1976: Ted Turner acquires the Atlanta Braves and convinces several players to wear nicknames, including Ralph Garr ("Roadrunner"), Jerry Royster ("Rooster"), Phil Niekro ("Knucksie"), Tom Paciorek ("Wimpy") Jimmy Wynn ("Cannon"), and Darrell Evans ("Howdy," as in Howdy Doody). But Turner goes too far by having Andy Messersmith wear "Channel" and uniform number 17, creating a de facto ad for Turner's cable TV station. When commissioner Bowie Kuhn puts the kibosh on that stunt, Messersmith switches to "Bluto." Jane Fonda finds this all so arousing that she later marries Turner.

1977: When the NHL mandates that all teams wear jersey names, tradition-minded Maple Leafs owner Howard Ballard "complies" by putting white-lettered names on the team's home white jerseys and blue-lettered names on the road blues, thereby rendering the names invisible. League bigwigs are unamused, and the team eventually switches to conventional jersey names.

1979: Giants shortstop Johnnie LeMaster, the target of relentless booing from San Francisco fans, takes the field wearing "Boo" on his back. The crowd laughs -- then boos. LeMaster goes back to a regular jersey after one game.

Late 1990s: Yankees radio broadcaster/sycophant Michael Kay, who during each game notes that the Yanks' jerseys have "no name, of course," becomes so infatuated with his own shtick that he begins drawing it out, like so: "no name ... [interminable pause] ... of course." This becomes so annoying that the Yankees briefly consider wearing jersey names, just to shut him up.

2001: The ill-fated XFL encourages its players to wear nicknames on their jerseys. Dozens of players oblige, most famously Las Vegas Outlaws running back Rod Smart, who earns universe-wide renown for wearing "He Hate Me," although neither he nor anyone else can coherently explain what it's supposed to mean.

Al Harris
Who is that guy? His darn hair is in the way!
2002 -- present: An increasing number of NFL players, including Al Harris, Mike McKenzie, and Troy Polamalu, let their hair grow so long that it obscures their jersey names. Old-school fans can't decide if they like the nameless effect or if the hairstyles represent the end of civilization.

2003: Teammates pull a prank on Devil Rays rookie Rocco Baldelli, replacing his regular jersey with one that has "Rocco" on the back. Baldelli remains oblivious to the stunt until an umpire points it out to him during the first inning, after which he changes to a standard "Baldelli" jersey. Old-schoolers stop debating NFL hairstyles long enough to mutter, "You call that a prank? Giving a guy a hot-foot, or putting liniment in his jockstrap ... now that's a prank."

Contest Follow-Up
As promised, the winning designs from Uni Watch's recent design contest for the Washington Expos-turned-Nationals were forwarded to Major League Baseball, in the hopes that the MLB gods would engage in some good-natured discussion on the matter.

"The creativity that some of our fans display never ceases to amaze me," said MLB spokesman Carmine Tiso. "In fact, fans send us mock-ups all the time -- believe me, there's no shortage of people who like to weigh in on stuff like this. Unfortunately, we can't really comment on any of this, since we have our own design for the Nationals in the works.

Well that's no fun. So we'll turn to reader reactions, where much of the response to the contest centered on the cap logo submitted by R. Scott Rogers, which many people found evocative of a certain part of the male anatomy.

Uni Watch frankly finds this interpretation a bit of a reach, but it's heartening to learn that the column's readers are obsessed with something besides uniforms. Rogers, for his part, says any suggestive effect was unintentional. But he acknowledges, "We're talking about a logo that incorporates the single largest phallus ever constructed," so a certain degree of licentiousness might have been inevitable.

And that's fine, as long as it inspires reactions as clever as this one from reader Laren Richardson: "The logo would go perfectly with the cheer that will be ringing out all over the DC area next April: 'Go Nads! ... I mean, Nats!'"

Paul Lukas thought it was pretty cool when his Little League all-star jersey had his name on the back. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it here.