A 50-year rewind with Larry Bowa to MLB’s age of plastic grass, polyester uniforms, sweating like pigs | Jones - pennlive.com

2022-07-30 09:29:30 By : Ms. Feifei Liu

The double-knits that took over baseball in the early 1970s looked colorful and cool, none more so than this road jersey modeled by young Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa. But it was a hot time in baseball with ovenlike circular stadiums, primitive artificial turf and those polyester threads. Hey, at least they weren't wool.Getty Images

Imagine an afternoon like this one in late July, except 50 years ago.

Now imagine playing baseball in one of the trendy circular multipurpose stadia that were popping up everywhere in the early ‘70s. They gradually and disdainfully became known as “ashtrays,” bowls without ventilation that held like Weber grills the summer heat produced by new artificial playing surfaces and plastic seats.

And now imagine donning the trendiest of 1972 MLB couture, an all-polyester double-knit pullover uniform. You’re melting, melting... ahhh.

They were different times, the early ‘70s. The Space Race to the Moon had just ended, the USA accomplishing the previously unfathomable quest of putting 12 astronauts on the lunar surface in a little over three years. Pharmaceutical companies were considered almost benevolent advocates of medical science. America was still willing to be sold the notion of technology always being employed to make the world a better place.

Nowhere was that vision more in evidence than the new manmade synthetics of Major League Baseball – plastic stadia, nylon grass, polymer uniforms.

And at no juncture was that transformation more rapid than 50 years ago this summer. The most dramatic overhaul was in the uniforms. Between 1970 and 1973, all 24 MLB teams switched from some form of wool or wool/nylon flannels to the new polyester double-knits.

It was almost literally like going from the frying pan to the fire. Both the flannels and double-knits were ungodly hot. To anyone who’s made the mistake of wearing a polyester jersey on a July day, you know.

Larry Bowa had no choice. He was in his third year with the Philadelphia Phillies and the club had, like so many other teams in 1972, just converted to double-knits. And yet, he said they were an improvement. Because, well, can you imagine wearing flannel uniforms in July?

“They were unbelievably hot. They kept all the sweat in. There was no breathing.

“And you’d go to places like Cincinnati and St. Louis and Pittsburgh where the stadiums were near a river, and the humidity especially day games, I look back on that and I think... man.”

The Phillies' rookie double-play combination of Denny Doyle (left) and Larry Bowa (right) were still wearing button-front wool flannels during the final days of Connie Mack Stadium in 1970.Philadelphia Sports History

I can attest myself that probably the hottest six hours I ever spent in my life was at a June 1977 Reds afternoon doubleheader in the right field lower bowl of the 7-year-old oven known as Riverfront Stadium. If it was one of those >90° motionless days on the Ohio River and you were seated anywhere near the aging AstroTurf surface, the place was inhumane. You could not drink enough skanky Hudepohl to forestall delirium. You merely tried to survive.

None of this is to diminish the ominousness of the current onset of climate change. It’s considerably hotter now around the globe than it was in the ‘70s and scientific consensus is clear that manmade greenhouse gasses are to blame.

But localities are not climate. And being an MLB player, by consensus of old vets like Bowa, is quite a bit cooler now than it was during the onset of baseball’s Golden Age of Plastic. Only 17% (5 of 30) of parks use synthetic turf today; it was 50% (12 of 24) at one point in the ‘70s. The new stadia feature ventilating designs that allow at least some breeze to blow through. None of the new venues did then; they were all multi-sport dog dishes.

And the uniforms now are much more sophisticated cotton/synthetic blends with lighter fabric that breathes and wicks moisture away from skin to keep players cooler.

Bowa, now 76 and retired as a coach since 2018, was at Citizens Bank Park on Friday in his capacity as senior advisor to the general manager as the Phillies and Cubs warmed up. The recent heatwave was a topic:

“I hear these guys complain now about the heat. I said: ‘You guys should try playing on AstroTurf on a Sunday afternoon.’ It didn’t matter what kind of uniform you had on.

“In St. Louis for a day game, they put two eggs on the AstroTurf and they fried, literally. It was like 150°.

“That’s what I told these [current Phillies]: You have no idea how hot it was.”

What was it like on infields suddenly with only dirt cutouts for bases and infielders standing on the plastic grass?

“We had a flat cardboard box full of ice in the dugout, and between innings of day games, we’d stand in that to cool off the bottoms of our feet. You could instantly feel the relief. I mean, it was that hot.”

Believe it or not, Bowa said he welcomed the onset of the zipper-front polyester uniforms when the Phillies converted to them in 1972.

“They were not hotter than the wool flannels. I mean, they were hot. But the flannels were worse.

“If I’d just put on the double-knits the very first year I played, then eventually went to [the cooler blends] at the end of my career, I’d say aw man, those double-knits were brutal. But I can honestly tell you that the double-knits were a lot better than what we’d been wearing.

“Obviously, as we progressed through our careers, they got a lot better. Now, they’re really nice.”

Let’s all imagine a 19-year-old Greg Luzinski sweating into this wool/nylon flannel jersey he wore in 1970-71. … OK, let’s not.Heritage Auctions

I remember 1972 as a year of profound change in baseball. For the first time in my life, a labor impasse canceled a chunk of the April schedule. The designated hitter rule was being seriously discussed and would be adopted in the American League the next season.

And after the Pittsburgh Pirates set the trend with their trim, sleek looking double-knits (actually made of a cotton/nylon blend) when Three Rivers Stadium opened in July 1970, then won the 1971 World Series in them, it seemed like everyone in the bigs flooded to the new look in 1972 – even my staid old tradition-laden Cincinnati Reds.

Here was The Big Red Machine, previously in bland, blousy, stripeless whites and grays with black belts, suddenly in snug-fitting polyester with broad red twill stripes on the sleeves and elastic snap-fasten waistbands. Even robust first base coach Ted Kluszewski wore one. Of course, he looked like an oversized porcelain floor vase you might see in a high-end hotel lobby. But most players, other than portlier ones like Willie Stargell or Greg Luzinski, looked good in them.

And looks were at the heart of the overhaul. Baseball was trying very hard to shed its musty old-timey image and attract a younger audience. The stadia, the fields, the uniforms all were transitioning from craggy and gray to streamlined, symmetrical and colorful. Television was certainly onboard with the rehab.

Peter Capolino knows all about that; he was a direct and exclusive subcontractor of high-quality MLB throwback jerseys available to fans. Capolino is the former longtime owner of the Philadelphia-based Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. that grew into an early-millennium phenomenon from its once-modest Center City store at 12th & Walnut streets. If you wanted a vintage jersey that looked exactly like Reggie Jackson’s old Athletics #9 or Nolan Ryan’s garish Astros #34, Capolino was your man and M&N was your store – provided that you had the $250-350 to throw at such an extravagance.

Declared Capolino when I reached him recently: “I know the whole history of polyester double-knits.” Which is something like being the documentarian of the cheese curl, I guess. But he certainly was a vital resource in this case.

Until he sold the business in 2008, Capolino reproduced every Major League Baseball uniform from 1901 through 1997. His contract with MLB stated that he could not reproduce a design that any team was currently wearing.

So, he was the perfect person to know that the Pirates began the double-knit trend in 1970 and the Boston Red Sox were the last to wear wool/nylon flannels, through 1973. By ‘74 everyone had joined in; that’s how fast the movement took hold.

“The reason for double-knits was television coverage. They were brighter in color, they held their look. And TV loved the double-knit look.”

It wasn’t that NBC, who held national broadcast rights, mandated them, Capolino said. But the clubs picked up on the network’s preference.

“I think another big reason was the ease of laundering them, maintaining them, and looking fresh every time you took the field. Double-knit fabric washed up cleaner than wool. It always looked fresh and new. And the players liked the tighter fit and look of the double-knits. So, there were multiple reasons they were so successful.”

Peter Capolino, longtime former owner of Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co., models a mid-'70s Nolan Ryan Astros jersey at the Walnut Street store in Center City Philadelphia.Hezekiah Madre

Only one problem: Like the wool (mid-’60s and prior) or wool/nylon (late ‘60s, early ‘70s) flannels, the early polyester kits were hotter than the sunny side of Mercury. By the early ‘80s, the makers added some natural fibers and fine-tuned the fabric so that it wicked moisture and wasn’t so opaque and sweltering:

“It allowed perspiration to go to the front like cotton.”

So, here was my ultimate question to Capolino: Like George Costanza when he had his big-idea phase as the Yankees’ assistant to the traveling secretary, I always wondered why on Earth baseball hasn’t used cotton uniforms. It’s so much cooler and more comfortable.

“Because cotton would absorb all the perspiration and end up being heavy. And then it looks bad.”

“But there’s one other thing about this: A lot of baseball players actually like sweating and being hot. Because they don’t move around a lot; baseball players move the least of any of the pro sports. So, heat keeps their muscles supple and limber. They didn’t mind being hot and sweaty.”

Yeah, well, Bowa might beg to differ. But at least the Phillies’ early double-knits had a unique feature none of the other teams’ buttonless pullovers did – zipper fronts.

“Oh, there’s no question they did,” said Bowa. “Especially in pregame.”

Bowa said he tells today’s players about the jersey fabrics of half a century ago and he’s treated as the demented old codger telling fables of how he walked 10 miles to and from school every day:

“These guys can’t relate to wool uniforms. You tell them we wore those things, and they look at you like you’ve got 20 heads. Their typical reaction is like: Yeah, sure.”

Maybe it’s just as well. Baseball in the ‘70s was great in a lot of ways. But it’s probably best that the Golden Age of Plastic is buried for good.

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