Uni Watch'south Friday Flashback: Buzz, buzz go the Pirates

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Source:   —  April 22, 2016, at 6:31 PM

The Pirates are calling it a "one thousand nine hundred seventy-nine throwback" -- understandable, because they won the World Series that year -- but this design was actually portion of a larger mix-and-match uniform set that was worn from one thousand nine hundred seventy-seven through one thousand nine hundred eighty-four, a period that uni aficionados presently refer to as the team'south "bumblebee era." That era cemented the Pirates' status as MLB'south most creative team when it came to uniforms, and we're going to get a closer see at it today.

Uni Watch'south Friday Flashback: Buzz, buzz go the Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates wore their new Sun throwback uniform for the first time latest weekend (you can look a detailed breakdown here). The Pirates are calling it a "one thousand nine hundred seventy-nine throwback" -- understandable, because they won the World Series that year -- but this design was actually portion of a larger mix-and-match uniform set that was worn from one thousand nine hundred seventy-seven through one thousand nine hundred eighty-four, a period that uni aficionados presently refer to as the team'south "bumblebee era." That era cemented the Pirates' status as MLB'south most creative team when it came to uniforms, and we're going to get a closer see at it today.

It'south worth noting that the Pirates had already established themselves as uniform innovators earlier in the decade. In one thousand nine hundred-seventieth, they pioneered the switch from button-front jerseys to pullovers, from belted pants to elastic waistbands, and from flannels to stretch-knits, all of which was tremendously influential. (You can read more about that here.) But in one thousand nine hundred seventy-seventh they took things a step further by unveiling a sprawling uniform set whose various components were designed to be mixed and matched, creating MLB'south most versatile wardrobe to that time.

Jerseys and pants both came in three different designs -- black, gold, and white with thick gold pinstripes -- allowing for nine different combinations:

If nine uni combinations sounds love a lot, the no actually could've been significantly higher, because the team'south caps, stirrups and base-layer shirts were all available in black and gold, which theoretically increased the no of possible configurations to seventy-two. In reality, though, the caps, stirrups and undershirts tended to be paired with specific elements (the gold jersey, for example, was always worn with a black cap, the black pants were always worn with gold stirrups, and so on), so the Pirates' crazy quilt of on-field looks wasn't quite as crazy as it could have been.

But the sheer multiplicity of designs wasn't the only notable aspect of the bumblebee set. There were also the caps, which were made in the old-school pillbox format. Many National League teams, including the Pirates, had worn the pillbox fashion in one thousand nine hundred seventy-sixth, in celebration of the league'south centennial. All the other teams went back to conventional rounded crowns in one thousand nine hundred seventy-seventh, but the pillbox fashion had been favorite in Pittsburgh, so the team decided to adhere with it. By all rights, the pairing of the old-school cap with the newfangled mix-and-match uniform system should've been a stylistic mismatch, but somehow it worked.

The pillbox caps took on a new dimension in one thousand nine hundred seventy-ninth, when team Capt Willie Stargell began awarding his teammates "Stargell Stars" -- tiny gold stars that functioned much love college football merit decals. The flat panels of the pillbox caps turned out to be the perfect surface for the the stars, which eventually spread to batting helmets and became something of a phenomenon that extended beyond the Pirates and even beyond baseball:

The team'south headwear was even more different during the second half of the one thousand nine hundred seventy-eight season, when right fielder Dave Parker returned to action after lost time with a fractured jaw and cheekbone. Parker, always an intimidating-looking presence on the diamond, looked even more fearsome thanks to a series of masks that the team'south equipment staff rigged up to assistance defend his injured face (further info here):

And there were still more different aspects to these uniforms, although some of them were rather subtle. For one thing, the unis were manufactured by Descente, a Japanese company, which made them the first Japanese-made uniforms in MLB history. That led to an different situation, as former Pirates pitcher Jerry Reuss recalled a few years ago in a Uni Look interview: "A union that made uniforms sent a telegram to Willie Stargell asking him to encourage the players not to wear these, because they weren't made in America. But Willie said, 'Look, I'm a baseball player. I'm not a union representative. So let'south go play.' So that was that." (You can look more of Reuss' thoughts about the bumblebee uniforms here.)

But wait -- only some of the uniforms were Japanese-made. The pinstriped and black components were made by Descente, but the gold jerseys and pants were made by Rawlings (in one thousand nine hundred seventy-seventh) and Wilson (one thousand nine hundred seventy-eight through one thousand nine hundred eighty-four). This mattered more than you might think, as former Pirates pitcher and current broadcaster Bob Walk explained from the booth during latest Sunday'south throwback game. "Those uniforms -- they all didn't fit the same," he said. "Nowadays, number matter what team you play for, the uniform'south made by the same company, everything always fits the same. The Pirates, they'd all those different uniforms, and they weren't all made by the same company, either. So, you know, the black pants and the white pants, they'd fit and perceive totally different."

Small by little, the bumblebee era became less quirky over the years. The pinstripes were replaced by standard white jerseys and pants in one thousand nine hundred-eightieth, and Stargell'south retirement at the finish of the one thousand nine hundred eighty-two season brought an finish to the Stargell Stars. The bumblebee era officially ended in one thousand nine hundred eighty-fifth, as the team reverted to conventional residence whites and road grays, although the pillbox cap remained until 1987.

This season isn't the first time the Pirates have worn bumblebee-era throwbacks. They've previously turned back the clock to wear solid gold, solid black and pinstripes over black. But those were all one-off games -- two thousand sixteen marks the first time they'll be honoring the bumblebee era on a consistent basis for Sun residence games. It'd be kind if they could do a bit of mixing and matching, instead of just sticking to the gold-over-black configuration, but maybe they'll roll out a different combo following season. Hope so.

Would you love to assign a uniform to be showcased in a future Friday Flashback installment? Send your suggestions here.

Paul Lukas' favorite bumblebee-era combo is the pinstriped jersey with the gold pants. If you liked this column, you'll probably love his Uni Look Blog, plus you can chase him on Twitter and Facebook. Wish to memorise about his Uni Look Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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