Special Report: Patching It All Together

(Written by Dave Grob, Senior Jersey Researcher, MEARS ) – I have always been intrigued in the wearing of memoriam (Latin for “in memory of”) arm bands and similar accouterments on baseball uniforms. From what I have been able to gather, the notion of an armband on a uniform has its early ties to military men who because of prescribed dress codes, could not adopt the practice of full mourning wear (all black) during a time of grief; the end result being a black band worn on their uniform.

According to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Dressed to the Nines webpage, the practice of a memoriam arm band on a baseball uniform has its earliest occurrence in professional baseball starting 1876. Between 1876 and 1972, there were some 56 instances where a black band or ribbon was worn on some part of the uniform. While I am clearly not old enough to remember baseball in 1876, by the early 1970s I was well entrenched in following baseball on the radio, TV, and through the daily box scores; attending major league games when I could; and collecting baseball cards with every free dime I could find. In retrospect, I now consider this to have been a wonderful time to have come of age as a baseball fan/collector in that it was transition period for the game, players, stadiums, and of course; uniforms. In short, I remember the 1972 baseball season with fond memories and the fact that I can say that I saw Roberto Clemente ply his trade as a peerless ballplayer that year.

Even the most casual fan/student of the game knows the Clemente legend and lore…closed all too prematurely by the tragic events of 31 December 1972. While I watched what in fact would be Clemente’s final game on TV (Game 5 of the 1972 NLCS), those memories are consumed with Bench’s game trying homer off of Dave Giusti and George Foster scampering home from third to win in it on a wild pitch from Bob Moose. “Baseball Stars of 1972″, a paperback book that could had from the “Weekly Reader” for 60 cents featured Clemente on the cover based on his stellar 1971 World Series performance. The 1972 Topps set had three Clemente cards (regular, “In Action”, and he appeared on one of the World Series cards). I guess my point in all of this is to say actually I remember Clemente, his passing, and the fact that it was acknowledged by the Pirates at the time it actually occurred.

Fast forward to today where I find myself collecting, researching, and evaluating baseball uniforms…at times still with the wonder and curiosity of that 8-10 year kid alluded to above. This brings us to the topic for the day and the 1973 Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms. I have titled this article as “patching it all together” in that it is my attempt to pull together information and references that many of you may have seen over the years in bit and pieces as it actually relates to a patch.

The Pittsburgh Pirates first effort to pay homage to Clemente came in the form of a black ribbon sewn loosely to the left shoulder of their uniforms in spring training 1973. I can only suspect they opted for this because the uniforms already featured a black band around the sleeves and simply adding another might not be readily apparent. No doubt that these flapping black ribbons stood out. Although I have never seen one of these in person, I would estimate they were about 4″ long and about 1 ½” wide. On 20 March 1972, the Pirates announced that they would replace the ribbon with a circular patch featuring Clemente’s “21” and there is contemporary photographic evidence to confirm that it was worn in spring training. This patch was actually three layers of fabric; black numbers sew to a white backing sewn to a black disc of some 3″ in diameter. This was also the first time a player had been memorialized in this manner.

The Pirates would wear this patch on both the home and road uniforms for the duration of the 1973 season. When we combine the period newspaper accounts and examples of uniforms in the hobby (1972 Pirate jerseys with the patch), we can now reasonably consider the wearing of this patch to have predated the April 6th 1973 home opener against the Cardinals in which the Pirates formally retired Clemente’s #21.

In looking into this topic in detail, I came across a wonderful photograph of Danny Murtaugh from 1973. As you can see in the image, Murtaugh’s uniform features a trimmed version of the ribbon and what looks to be a very thin single layer fabric (almost paper like) #21 patch. I think this photograph can be reasonably dated to the period of 10-13 September based on when he took over from Bill Virdon (7 September) and what appears to be a Wrigley Field backdrop (brick wall). With Murtaugh taking over while the Pirates were on the road, this may help to explain what appears to be a “quick fix” on the uniform.

So far we have looked at this “first of its kind” patch during the context of prior to the 1973 season and during the 1973 season. The next area for consideration and the question to be asked and answered is did the Pirates continue to retain this patch on uniforms in 1974 and beyond? I wanted to look at this aspect since I think it has potential bearing on the rarity of the patch and the uniforms that bore them originally. I am of the opinion that the longer the patch stayed on the uniform, the greater the likelihood you would be able to obtain one with an original patch. If they did not stay on for long, then the chances of finding one in all original condition diminishes.

I first looked at Topps baseball cards starting in 1974. I did this because these photos are often taken in spring training. The problem with this is that you don’t always know which year or which “spring training” the photograph was from. To highlight this, we need look no further than Clemente’s own 1973 card. The backdrop is spring training and the photograph cannot be from 1973. The black ribbon and or patch shows up in Pirates Topps cards in 1974-1976, but was it really worn that long? I tend to think not based on period images contained in dated newspapers from 1974. I did find one photograph attributed to March of 1974 (team publicity shot) that does feature the circular patch. What this suggests to me is that if I did come across a Pirates uniform from the 1973 time frame I should more than likely to expect to find the patch missing or having been reapplied.

I bring up the possibility of patches being reapplied by collectors as I have seen both individual patches for sale ($500-$900 range) and it is considered one if not the most highly sought after patches of the 1970s. In addition, all the examples of uniforms I have seen to date have had the patches missing:

-1973 Pirates Dave Parker Home (Rawlings); Patch Missing

-1973 Pirates Willie Stargell Road (Rawlings); Patch Missing

-1973 Pirates Steve Blass Road (Rawlings); Patch Missing

-1973 Pirates Gene Clines Road (Rawlings); Patch Missing

Granted, this is an extremely small sample when you consider the number of players and coaches the Pirates would have outfitted in both home and road uniforms for 1973. My point being the patch is extremely rare as are the uniforms from this same time frame. When you combine both facets, being able to find one in original condition is even more of a remote possibility. I base this off of what appears to evidence of the patch’s removal for spring training in 1974 as well as the requirement the Pirates would have add to continue to use the 1973 uniforms for either extend major league organizational use or by use and wear at the minor league level.

The AAA Club for the Pirates at this time was the Charelston Charlies. Their uniforms did not feature PIRATES across the front nor is there any sign that they wore the #21 patch in either 1973 or 1974. The AA Clubs were the Sherbrooke Pirates (1973) and the Thetford Mines (1974). I was unable to locate images of the Sherbrooke Pirates from 1973 and the Thetford Mines would not have featured PIRATES based on naming convention.

What I did find is that the Single A level Salem Pirates of the Carolina League can be seen wearing Pirate knit uniforms in both 1973 and 1974. The 1973 uniforms are without the Clemente patch so this seems to indicate the patch was not worn at the minor league level. This means if you do come across a vintage Clemente “21” patch, it can be attributed to use and wear by the Pittsburgh Pirates. No patches are found on the 1974 Salem Pirates uniforms so those that may have been handed down from 1973 for use in 1974 had the patches removed. When you combine this minor league information with what we saw from major league Spring Training in 1974, we can begin to account for the 1973 Pirate uniforms and the Clemente patch in a much larger and complete organizational perspective. This seems consistent with what I have seen even in a small sample of 1973 Pirate uniforms; if you can find one, expect to find it without the patch.

So there you have it…patching things together as we look to remember one of the greats of the game and a Major League Baseball first for how his team chose to remember him and honor his passing.

As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.

Dave Grob

For Questions or comments on this article, please feel to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com

PSA

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