On August 8, 1976 – 38 years ago today – the Chicago White Sox stepped out of the dugout for the first game of their Sunday afternoon doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals, and into the history books.
Their historic achievement? Becoming the first baseball team to wear shorts in a major league game.
The fashion statement was one of the many whimsical ideas deployed in the summer of ’76 by White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who’d bought the franchise the previous winter and was thus faced with the daunting task of luring fans to Comiskey Park to watch a patently lousy team. As was typical for a man who’d lost a leg in World War II and had the wooden prosthesis that replaced it specially fitted with a built-in ashtray, Veeck approached this challenge with a twinkle in his eye and a talent for thinking well outside of the box.
He installed a public shower in the ancient ballpark’s center field bleachers, reactivated the famous “exploding scoreboard” he’d built in the 1950s during his first tenure as White Sox owner, booked one hilarious promotion after another (including a series of beer crate-stacking competitions and a “Salute to Mexico” wherein his team took the field in giant sombreros), and blackmailed the team’s often-intoxicated broadcaster Harry Caray into leading the crowd in sing-alongs of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Such was Veeck’s talent for hype that the White Sox managed to sell nearly 165,000 more tickets in 1976 than they had the previous season, despite finishing dead last in their division.
But Veeck’s redesign of the White Sox uniforms was perhaps his most radical act. The team’s new duds were unveiled in March 1976 at a bizarre “fashion show” held at Chicago’s Tremont Hotel, which starred grizzled former White Sox players as runway models. The new unis featured collared V-neck pullovers that looked like a cross between 1870s baseball tunic and a 1970s leisure suit, and which – boldly flouting baseball sartorial tradition – were meant to be worn un-tucked. They also included three below-the-waist options: “Clamdiggers,” pants which came down to just above the ankle; “Knickerbockers,” which were worn tucked into knee-high socks; and “Hollywood shorts” (so named because they were reminiscent of the Bermuda shorts worn by the 1950 Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League), which left the players’ knees completely exposed.
“Players should not worry about their vanity, but their comfort,” Veeck told the press. “If it’s 95 degrees out, an athlete should be glad to put on short pants and forget his bony knees. Hell, I’ve got a worse-looking knee than any of my players. It’s solid wood.”
As with so many of Veeck’s innovations, the White Sox Bermuda shorts were initially regarded as a joke. (Veeck’s wife Mary has often been blamed for their creation, but their son Mike has said that her involvement in their design was “apocryphal at best.”) While the White Sox wore the Clamdigger and Knickerbocker variations throughout the first four months of the 1976 season, few observers thought that they’d ever actually don the shorts. In July, when the Chicago Tribune asked White Sox players about the shorts, they largely laughed off the subject. “Hope they give us a little notice, so I can buy some Nair,” cracked hurler Goose Gossage, while second baseman Jack Brohamer volunteered that, “I’m not going to wear short pants unless they let me wear a halter top, too.”
First baseman Lamar Johnson, on the other hand, sounded profoundly stoked about the prospect. “I got the nicest thighs you ever saw,” he bragged. “I can’t wait!”
Johnson finally got to strut his sexy man-legs on August 8, when Veeck gave the signal for his players to break out the Bermudas against the AL West-leading Royals. But as with so many pioneering fashion statements, the White Sox shorts were met with much derision upon making their major league debut. Big John Mayberry, for one, could barely contain his mirth. “You guys are the sweetest team we’ve seen yet,” howled the hulking Kansas City Royals first baseman, as Chicago White Sox centerfielder Ralph Garr stepped up to the plate.
“Hey Ralph,” Mayberry added, “you get over to first base and I’m gonna give you a big kiss!”
Other Kansas City players joined in the heckling, but they were forced to eat their words when the White Sox won 5-2, making the Royals the first team in MLB history to lose to guys wearing short pants. Clearly not expecting their opponents to run, the Royals were victimized in five straight stolen base attempts by the White Sox, who wore special protective sliding pads under their knee socks.
Chicago skipper Paul Richards had the team change back to long pants for the second game of the double-header, citing the unseasonably cool August weather, but the Bermudas had made their mark; the next day, nearly every sports page in the country ran photos of the White Sox in bare-kneed action. It was a huge publicity coup for Veeck, who soon announced that he would bring the shorts back for a late-August weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles.
Though many White Sox fans were horrified by the idea of their team dressing like a beer-league softball squad, others were intrigued enough to want a first-hand look. On August 21, 32,607 South Side fans – the team’s third-biggest crowd of the season – watched their shorts-clad heroes beat the Orioles 11-10 in 12 innings. In the second inning of that contest, Brohamer (not wearing a halter top despite his earlier protests) became the first player in major league history to hit a home run while wearing shorts.
The power of the Bermudas proved, er, short-lived, however: Less than 17,000 fans were in attendance the following day when the Sox lost 6-2 in the shorts, and the general lack of national press coverage convinced the media-savvy Veeck that it was time to pack up the Bermudas.
“Now we’ll wait to see if any other teams try them,” he cackled, opining that it would probably be at least another five years before the fad caught on around the majors.
It was not to be, however. No other MLB team has donned shorts for a ballgame, not even the White Sox. Though many Sox fans – clearly traumatized by the memory – insist to this day that the team wore them for an entire season or longer, the shorts were packed up on August 23, 1976, never to return. To this day, the Sox still boast a 1.000 stolen base percentage while wearing shorts (they were 8-for-8), and Brohamer remains the only MLB player to homer in short pants.
Which, frankly, is kind of a shame. Ever since the 1990 “Turn Back the Clock” game where the White Sox wore replicas of their 1917 uniforms in celebration of Comiskey Park’s final season, the “throwback night” concept has picked up steam to the point where just about every team in the majors participates in at least one such promotion during the course of a season. Even some of the game’s most notoriously ill-designed uniforms – such as the Cubs’ “blue pajamas” of the late ’70s/early ’80s, or the ugly-ass White Sox unis of the 1980s – have made throwback reappearances, so why not bring back the White Sox shorts? Sure, they regularly top lists of the worst baseball uniforms of all time, but their revival (even for one game) would be a wonderful way to salute the playful legacy of the late, great Bill Veeck, and harken back to a time when baseball wasn’t quite so corporate or serious.
Don’t hold your breath, though.
“As fun as it would be, I don’t think we could do it,” says Brooks Boyer, White Sox vice president and chief market officer, on the possibility of Veeck’s Bermudas making a comeback. “Our fans would love it, as it is something unique in White Sox history, but [I’m] not sure it would work in today’s game.”
Still, Boyer tells me, “Our manager, Robin Ventura, never shies away from topics like this, so you never say never.”
Therein lies the faintest hint of possibility. We’ve got two years to lobby the White Sox to bring back the Bermudas in time for their 40th anniversary. Who’s with me?
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras