Sports Nut

Uni Watch

You’re dead. Here’s your uniform tribute.

McGraw: Eulogy by uniform

It’s unusual for an athlete to have such an impact on two franchises that they both memorialize him upon his passing. But Tug McGraw, the key character on both the Mets’ pennant-winning team in 1973 and the Phillies’$2 1980 world championship team, was a special guy. With McGraw having passed away last winter, the Mets have honored him by embroidering his signature rallying cry, “Ya Gotta Believe,” onto their right sleeves (it’s hard to see, but look beneath that huge, garish patch they’re wearing to celebrate Shea Stadium’s 40th anniversary), while the Phillies have drawn on McGraw’s Irish heritage by wearing a shamrock sleeve patch inscribed with “Tug.”

McGraw is only one of this year’s many recipients of a season-long uniform eulogy. The Phillies’ shamrock patch, in fact, also includes a little red ribbon imprinted with “Pope,” in honor of former team exec Paul “The Pope” Owens. In addition, the Braves are wearing a home-plate-shaped No. 21 sleeve patch for Warren Spahn and the Twins are wearing a script “Eloise” sleeve patch for Eloise Pohlad, the late wife of team owner Carl Pohlad, which gets Uni Watch’s vote for this year’s strangest memorial.

Baseball’s tradition of honoring its dead began in 1881, when the Worcester Ruby Legs, a short-lived National League team, wore black crepe on their sleeves in memory of their teammate Chub Sullivan, who’d recently died of tuberculosis. (An extensive listing of subsequent uni memorials is available as part of Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Tom Shieber’s excellent “Dressed to the Nines” exhibit.) In 1906 crepe gave way to armbands, which remained the standard uni-based mourning format until 1973, when the Pirates honored Roberto Clemente with a circular sleeve patch inscribed with Clemente’s No. 21. Sleeve patches—usually featuring the deceased’s initials, uniform number, or both—have gradually eclipsed armbands since then.

So, who gets memorialized on a uniform? Honorees have generally broken down like this:

  • Active players: Understandably, any player who dies in the middle of his career is pretty much guaranteed to be honored on his teammates’ unis, whether he was a big star (the Yankees’ Thurman Munson), a raw youngster (Mike Darr of the Padres), or a journeyman (the Rangers’ Danny Thompson). The most recent example was Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, who died in his sleep in 2002 and was remembered with a sleeve patch featuring his initials and uniform number.
  • Retired players: Here the bar is higher. Hall of Famers like Spahn are generally shoo-ins (other recent examples include Ted Williams and Larry Doby). Fan favorites like McGraw have a chance to be remembered, but if you didn’t distinguish yourself on the field, then you’re probably out of luck.
  • Nonplayers: The first honoree in this category appears to have been National League president Harry Pulliam, who was memorialized by all NL teams in 1909. Since then, a wide variety of league presidents, baseball commissioners, team executives, and announcers have been honored, as well as behind-the-scenes figures like Mets patron saint and stadium namesake William Shea (honored with an “S” patch in 1992) and longtime Yankees clubhouse attendant Pete Sheehy (an armband in 1985). Uni Watch is particularly fond of the Harry Caray caricature the Cubs wore in memory of their longtime broadcaster in 1998, although purists might prefer the simple “JFB” patch that the Cardinals wore for their own broadcaster, Jack Buck, in 2002.
  • Everyone else: You don’t have to have anything to do with baseball to be honored on a uniform. Over the years, such non-baseball figures as U.S. presidents Warren G. Harding (memorialized by the Cubs and Dodgers in 1923) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Senators, 1945), Pittsburgh Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri (Pirates, 1988), the victims of the Columbine massacre (Rockies, 1999), and the Columbia space shuttle crew (Astros, 2003) have earned uni tributes. Oddest of all was the big, black No. 9 the Expos wore in 2000 for Montreal hockey legend Maurice Richard, which to Uni Watch’s knowledge is the only instance of a player in one sport being saluted on the uniform of another.

And speaking of other sports, uni memorials aren’t unique to baseball. This past season, the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers wore a No. 37 chest patch  for fallen teammate Dan Snyder, and the LSU Tigers won college football’s national championship with equipment manager Jeff Boss’ initials on their jerseys and helmets. It also seems a sure bet that the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals—and possibly the league’s 31 other teams—will wear some sort of tribute to slain Army Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004. But it’s unlikely that any such display will match the approach of the Chicago Bears, who permanently wear the initials of team founder George S. Halas on their left sleeves—sort of the eternal flame of uniform memorials.

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