Twenty-six years ago this week -- the exact date was July 11, 1990 -- the Chicago White Sox tried something a little daring for their game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Sox dressed in uniforms based on the team's 1917 unis.
Going along with the old-school vibe, general admission tickets were 50 cents and popcorn was sold for a nickel. Comiskey Park's public address system was shut down for the day, and lineups were announced via a megaphone. Most of the advertisements in the ballpark were covered up. Men dressed in straw hats and bow ties, and women in long skirts and bonnets. There was a barbershop quartet, a hand-operated scoreboard, and an organ-grinder with a monkey.
A note in the scorecard explained what was going on. "Welcome to 'Turn Back the Clock Day' at Comiskey Park," it began. "To help savor the final season at historic Comiskey, the White Sox want you to be able to look at the field, squint, and perhaps capture the flavor of what it was like here in 1917, the last year the Sox were World Champions. To help you imagine, the team will appear in 1917 replica uniforms made of current cloth but made along the lines of bygone days."
And so began the first attempt at what has now become a common promotion in the sports world: the throwback game. Teams typically no longer bother with most of the nostalgic trappings (tough break for the organ-grinder industry), but the key component -- the use of throwback uniforms -- has remained. Throwbacks have become so firmly established in the uni-verse, and are such reliable crowd-pleasers, that it's easy to forget how revolutionary they once seemed, especially on that day in Chicago in 1990.
Steve Winkler, a lifelong Chicagoan who works for the Cook County Clerk's office, was one of the 40,666 fans who attended that game. He was 24 years old at the time and remembers it very clearly.
"I was coaching Little League, and I took about 10 or 15 kids and adults to the game with me, because the ticket prices were so low," he said. "The uniforms were terrific -- they were very authentic. Or as authentic as they could be. Of course, the kids didn't quite grasp the whole thing, so the adults were explaining everything to them."
Michael James, a data analyst and Brewers fan from Milwaukee, drove down to Chicago that day with a friend. "I thought the uniforms were a brilliant idea," James said. "I was a little disappointed the Brewers didn't do something with their uniforms, but they were only a 20-year-old team at the time, so they didn't have much of a history to dip back into."
Winkler and James both enjoy the feeling of having been in on the ground floor of the throwback revolution. "Anytime someone does a throwback game, I think, 'Yeah, I was there for that first one,'" James said.
(Winkler, though, takes a dim view of teams that trot out throwback uniforms but don't include all the retro-themed trimmings that the White Sox provided back in 1990. "Amateurs," he sniffs.)
It didn't take other sports long to be bitten by the throwback bug. Here's a look at the first throwback uniforms worn by the other major North American pro leagues, presented in the order in which they jumped aboard the throwback bandwagon:
NHL: The NHL introduced throwbacks for its 1991-92 season, when the league was celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Original Six teams -- the Blackhawks, Bruins, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Rangers and Red Wings -- all added throwback uniforms to their wardrobes that season.
NFL: The first NFL team to turn back the clock was the 1993 Jets, who commemorated the 25th anniversary of their Super Bowl III-winning season by wearing a throwback uniform -- sort of. Instead of new white helmets, the Jets used their existing green helmet shells, adorned with a green version of their classic 1960s logo.
The rest of the NFL took the throwback plunge the following season, as the league marked its 75th anniversary with a wide-ranging series of throwbacks.
NBA: The NBA was the last of the major pro leagues to embrace the throwback trend, finally succumbing in 1996-97 as part of the league's 50th anniversary.
By now, the vast majority of major-level pro teams have worn throwbacks at some point. Three of them have even done so while competing for a championship. In 1994, the San Francisco 49ers were so successful while wearing their throwbacks during the regular season that they asked the NFL for permission to wear them during the postseason, which culminated in their victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
In the 2003 NBA Finals, the New Jersey Nets revived their Dr. J-era throwbacks, although that move wasn't enough to keep them afloat against the San Antonio Spurs. And earlier this year, the Pittsburgh Penguins wore their throwbacks while defeating the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup finals.
And if a team hasn't existed long enough to have a throwback design, it can still play along by creating a fauxback, a move pioneered by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012.
It's appropriate that the White Sox were the ones to pioneer the throwback craze, because they've had some pretty bizarre uniforms over the years, from their untucked leisure suits to their beach blanket design with the uni number on the leg and their reverse-field stirrups (a rare instance of the White Sox living up to their name!). After 26 years, they've now tried throwback versions of many of those designs, but there's one Sox uni that Winkler would still like to see.
" The shorts," he says. "That's the one I'm waiting for."
He's not the only one. Come on, Sox -- make it happen.
(Special thanks to Mike Chamernik and Eric Pytel for their research assistance.)
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Paul Lukas wishes throwback games had existed when he was growing up in the 1970s. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch 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.