The American flag is one of the few things that has been a constant in our society for a loner time span than professional sports. In times of war and/or crisis, Old Glory is a theme to be found on the game-worn apparel of pro sports teams and leagues. While not meant to be all-inclusive, this edition of The Shirt will focus on some of the more recent sighting of the Stars and Stripes on the playing fields and arenas of North American sports.
THE GULF WAR (DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM)
When the U.S. got involved in the Middle East in 1990, Major League Baseball was quick to recognize it on participants’ game attire. The 1990 World Series uniforms of both Fall Classic teams, the Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds, had U.S. flag patches added to the front of the Series jerseys worn by both clubs. While no major supplies of 1990 Reds BP tops has ever surfaced, the green road and yellow home BP jerseys used by the A’s in the 1990 Series also had U.S. flag patches added to the sleeves.
The practice continued in 1991, with U.S./Canada flag tandems added to MLB game batting helmets. Some minor league clubs also added Old Glory logos to their jerseys, including the farm teams of the California Angels. This is noted specifically because, while the practice of minor league teams using major league hand-me-down uniforms was becoming a dying practice by then, the Angels still engaged in it. As a result, late 1980s and 1990 Angels MLB jerseys may surface with the flag still affixed, or a stitching outline from its former presence, because of 1991 use at a Halos farm outpost.
AND THEN…THERE WAS 9/11
The terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon caused a halt to the MLB regular season schedule for a week. When play resumed, a new custom emerged. Game caps with the American Flag shown on the left side of the crown became a recurring staple of big league game fashion. Currently, the flag caps are limited to patriotic-themed game days (Memorial day, 4th of July, 9/11, and Labor Day). In late 2001, however, the flag caps were the norm for all regular season and playoff games after the resumption of play.
Regarding these flag caps, a notable difference has been uncovered through research. Comparing caps we both own, yours truly and another Chicago-based collector, Joe McCarthy, noted a distinct difference between the flag caps we were given by players at the close of the 2001 regular season (McCarthy received caps from Pirates coaches Dave Clark and Bruce Tanner, while I was given one by first baseman Kevin Young, as the Bucs closed out at Wrigley Field that year). On these three, and others verified as being from 2001, such as an Eric Young Cubs cap tossed to a mutual acquaintance of ours that day, the flag logo was embroidered directly into the fabric of the cap’s crown. The versions from 2002-present have the flag heat pressed on to the cap crown. Simply put, if you look inside the crown of the cap, and can see the pattern of the U.S. flag design on the inside of the cap, it is a 2001 version. If the pattern is not discernible, save perhaps for a slight indentation of the edge of the flag logo from the heat press, then it is almost assuredly a later issue. It is possible a small number of heat pressed flag caps may have been worn in 2001, as past use of other logo-adorned caps have found the occasional player insisting on having the logo added via this process because he only wears one cap of each style per year. If that is the case, such an unusual cap would likely also be a very heavily worn one.
Of course, flag patches also were added to the neck backs of 2001 MLB jerseys, affixed over the MLB logo. The minor league teams began varying degrees of U.S. flag patch usage on game shirts beginning in 2002, with many still paying tribute in this manner to this day.
In the NBA, meanwhile, the 2001-02 season found all member teams wearing a patch with the 9-11 ribbon of remembrance highlighted with an American flag, except one. The hoop league’s only Canadian member, the Toronto Raptors (the Grizzlies had left Vancouver by then), wore a similar patch, but with the U.S. and Canadian flags side-by-side.
Who knows when the next consistent major sports sighting of The Stars and Stripes will be? One can only hope that, rather than as a memoriam to innocent lives lost to terrorists or extremists, it will instead be a patriotic celebration of the Land of the Free.