Last week, on the brisk October evening that marked Game 1 of the World Series, I sat at a Brooklyn sports bar inside a galleria and noticed that a man on the field was wearing a suit.
After Jezebel Editor-in-Chief Emma Carmichael corrected me, explaining that the man in the suit was not a catcher but in fact an umpire (I like basketball), I became curious about his sartorial condition, both its formality and the practicalities of it: Why such an official kit plopped among the overwhelmingly uniformed? What’s going on with the Game of Thrones-style breastplate? And most importantly, doesn’t the ump worry about sweating in the suit?
As it turns out, umpires have been wearing formal attire for the nearly two-century history of baseball in the U.S. Back then, as now, the ensembles were specifically worn to differentiate the umpires from the players, and to imbue them with higher authority.
“The umpire in the amateur era in the 1860s, in the 1850s even, would wear what looks to be a frock coat, sometimes a stovepipe hat, flowing cravat, and even a cane—you know, a kind of dandy’s look,” says John Thorn, the Official Historian for Major League Baseball, over the phone from Cleveland. (Game 6 is taking place there tonight.)
As baseball became more popular in the 1870s (the National League formed in 1876), umpires’ suits were in keeping with the styles of their day, and the distinctly formal look gave them a dignified edge. But contrary to some reports, umpires in those early days weren’t just lawyers or doctors working a side gig, says Thorn. “Even then the players were likely to dispute calls, and an umpire who had a pugilistic background might be better equipped to handle a rowdy player than a banker or a doctor or a dentist.” In other words, an umpire had to know how to throw hands—so much that one of the most famous umpires, Billy McLean, was also a boxer by trade.
Though player and fan abuse of umpires dissipated around World War II—“‘Kill the umpire’ was not an idle threat,” says Thorn—the tradition of suit-wearing umpires has lived on and even evolved. When the National League began employing individual umpires, it developed regulations for them to maintain the visual effect of having an elevated authority. But there were also more practical reasons: umpires wearing any individual team’s jersey could send a signal to the fans that they were making unfair calls. “Like Trump kinda claimed the election is being rigged,” explains Thorn, “home-team fans typically claimed that the umpire was in the fix.” The fix, as it were, was a notion or paranoia that umps were on the payrolls of bookies; in 1882, one umpire was banned for life for being in cahoots with gamblers.
This notion of impartiality is how this specific strain of umpire fashion has persisted. “They have to be viewed by everyone concerned as not being an intimate part of the action, but somehow outside it,” says Thorn, who points out that historically, a way to dispute an umpire’s call was to kick dirt on his suit. “The idea is by kicking dirt, you attack the institution, you attack the impartiality of the umpire, and you show him to be not above the fray, for better or worse.”
Major League umpires currently wear black suits, a color choice that has shifted (to the dismay of some fans) over the years; the presently ubiquitous chest protector didn’t exist until an early umpire borrowed a ledger book from his hotel and stuck it in his jacket to avoid getting an unwanted ball-smack. But while current Major League officials’ uniforms are more tightly regulated, the Minor Leagues have lot more leeway. Umpires in the Pacific Coast League, for instance, at one point allowed umpires for the Hawaii Islanders to wear Hawaiian shirts. Thorn admits this whole thing could have gone another way. “Maybe a paisley, mod look from London, 1970s for the umpires,” he suggests. “I certainly don’t go around dressed as a dandy, but I cared [about fashion] in my 20s and 30s, and know a thing or two.”