Trousers, Knickers, & Long Pants: How Baseball's Reverence for Tradition Molded Today’s Pant Styles

Trousers, Knickers, & Long Pants:
How Baseball’s Reverence for Tradition Molded Today’s Pant Styles

By:  Marty Winkler

They say that the pants make the player.  Whether you prefer the knickers of Aaron Judge or long, baggy look of Mike Trout, pant styles have varied from year-to-year and player-to-player.  It is one of the great ironies of baseball that a sport so steeped in tradition and strict rules, both written and unwritten, is so forgiving when it comes to a key piece of its own uniform.

How did baseball pants get to this point?  To find the answer, we have to go back to the game’s origins.

Baseball as we know it today came in to being in the mid-1840s with the formation of the New York Knickerbockers, the first team to play the game under modern rules.  Players’ pants were long and baggy, much in-line with the style of the day.  But they were also primarily made of wool, making them quite heavy and uncomfortable to play in on hot summer days.

Discomfort aside, the baggy trousers were not practical as players routinely tripped on their own long pant legs, leading to players hiking their pants up extra high, and to the development of one of baseball’s uniform mainstays; a belt.

By the end of the 1860s, a majority of baseball team’s did away with wearing full-length pants and instead opted for more practical knickers.  Knickers still provided the same protection as full-length trousers, but the short length allowed more freedom of movement and alleviate the issue of tripping over one’s own pant leg.

The advent of knickers also lead to the prominence of high baseball socks.  Seeing an opportunity to make themselves stand out from their opponent, teams started to wear colorful socks that stretched from the shoe to the bottom of the knickers.  These socks lead to the creation of team nicknames that still exist today, including the Boston Red Sox, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Chicago White Sox.

Carl Hubbell's distinctive pants styleFor over 60 years, knickers were baseball’s primary look, until pitcher Carl Hubbell made his Major League debut in 1928.  Hubbell spent his entire 15-year career with the New York Giants.  The Hall of Famer was known for his devastating screwball, but also for the distinctive way he wore his pants.

Instead of wearing traditional knickers that ended just below the knee, Hubbell opted to wear pants with longer legs that hugged his calves.  The look earned him the nickname “Old Long Pants”. 

After Hubbell’s retirement in 1943, the longer pants began catching on with several players throughout the league.  The look continued to grow in prominence throughout the 50s and 60s and eventually became the look of choice for many superstar players including Bob Gibson and Mickey Mantle.

Throughout the rest of the 1960s and the 1970s, pants remained relatively unchanged and their length settled midway between the knee and the shoe.  But in the 1980s, players started preferring to wear their pants all the way down to their shoes.  Unlike the loose fitting trousers from baseball’s early days, these longer baseball pants were more snug and form fitting, allowing the pants to be tucked inside the shoe.  These longer, close-fitting pants became the popular look in baseball throughout the 1990s with players such as Mark McGwire and Chipper Jones dawning them for the majority of the decade.

As the game moved into the new millennium, baseball pants saw another major change.  Long pants were still the popular look, but now players preferred them to be more baggy and loose fitting through the leg.  Pant lengths were also extended to rest on and even cover a player’s shoes.  The look was popularized by sluggers such as Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz and it is still a popular look with today’s players, with long pants being worn by Albert Pujols, Nolan Arenado, and the previously mentioned Mike Trout.

Baseball is a game steeped in history and is more mindful of its own traditions than any other sport.  And, in a way, it’s this respect for its past that has led to today’s variance in pant styles.  Over the last few years, baseball has looked back to its roots for its newest pant styles as traditional knickers become more and more prominent with today’s players.  Carlos Correa, David Price, and Tommy Pham are just a few of today’s stars that have made knickers are part of their regular look.

It’s no secret that fashion is cyclical, and baseball is no exception.  So it should come as no surprise that the game’s old styles are making a comeback.  The pants might still make the player, but it is the game that makes the pants.