In the summer of 2004, I basically pestered a couple of ESPN.com editors until they agreed to bring me on board to let me write about uniforms, which at the time was a fairly radical concept (the uniform writing, not the pestering).
Nearly 15 years later, the Worldwide Leader and I are parting ways. No hard feelings -- it's been a great ride, and I'll always be grateful to have had the opportunity to obsess over uniforms and other oddball topics on the premier sports media platform. It has also been a privilege to interact with you, my readers, who've provided invaluable information, inspiration, tips and feedback. Thanks, people -- you're the best.
It seems natural at moments like these to take a look back. So as I prepare to move on, here are 10 of my favorite stories that I've written for ESPN (plus a bunch of "Honorable Mentions," because I couldn't stick to just 10). Some date back more than a decade, others less than a year, but all were a blast to work on and left big impressions on me -- and, I hope, on some of you. Think of them as my personal ESPN highlight reel, my self-selected web gems.
Some of the links in these articles no longer work (that's the internet for ya), so apologies in advance for that, but the essence of each story is still there. Ready? Deep breath -- here we go:
1. Bill Buckner's double uni curse
Everyone knows about Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner's famous error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. But it took another 20 years before we learned that Buckner wasn't just embodying the Curse of the Bambino -- he was also wearing a Chicago Cubs batting glove under his first baseman's mitt, thereby commingling the two most storied curses in baseball history. That seems almost quaint now, because the Sox and Cubs have both overcome their jinxes and become MLB powerhouses, but Buckner's double uni curse is still the greatest ESPN story I ever worked on. Get the full scoop here.
2. Which Yankee wore the most pinstripes?
When robustly proportioned and baggily uniformed pitcher CC Sabathia signed with the New York Yankees in 2008, that raised a fascinating uni-related question: Would Sabathia set the record for the most pinstripes ever appearing on a Yankees jersey? The answer turned out to be surprisingly nuanced and complex. Read about it here.
3. The story behind the Astros' rainbow uni
The Houston Astros' iconic rainbow uniform, also known as the tequila sunrise design, was introduced in 1975 and is arguably the most radical uni concept in baseball history. But it took more than four decades before the full story of the uniform's creation was told, courtesy of several men who had worked on the project and were happy to share their recollections. (Remarkably, all of them still live in Houston.) Priceless stuff, which you can read here.
4. The Gator Flop
This one wasn't a uniform story, but it was still fascinating. One of the more infamous chapters in college football history is the Gator Flop, in which the Florida defense literally laid down on the ground and allowed Miami to score an uncontested touchdown late in a 1971 game to get the ball back so Florida quarterback John Reaves could have a shot at breaking a passing-yardage record. Miami viewed it as the definition of poor sportsmanship, and it raised lots of intriguing questions about situational ethics, the importance of the individual versus the team, and so on. Nearly 40 years after it happened, I tracked down most of the key players and asked them about it, and many of their answers showed that the wounds from that long-ago game still hadn't completely healed. Definitely one of the most interesting pieces I've ever worked on -- check it out here.
5. The Cowboys' uniform quirks
You might know that the Dallas Cowboys inexplicably use multiple shades of blue and multiple shades of silver on their uniforms. But their uni program over the years has also included a slew of other oddities and eccentricities that only the most practiced uni aesthete would notice. Get the full story here.
6. The man behind the MLB logo
As of 2008, nobody had ever been officially credited with designing Major League Baseball's classic silhouetted-batter logo. I did a story that helped substantiate graphic designer Jerry Dior's claim that he was the logo's creator. You can read about it here, along with a follow-up piece in which Dior debunked the persistent but inaccurate myth that the silhouetted batter was based on Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew. (MLB officially acknowledged Dior as the logo's designer the following year.)
7. The Confederate Yankees
In 2011, I came across some photos showing that a Yankees minor league affiliate in Georgia had worn a Confederate flag sleeve patch for several seasons in the 1960s. That sent me down a deep rabbit hole of interviewing former players, the team's former GM, the son of the team's owner, and more, all of which ended up confounding a lot of my assumptions. A real eye-opener, which you can read here.
8. The C-Flap
As the 2018 MLB season was about to start, I saw signs that the C-Flap -- that batting helmet attachment thingy that covers the cheek and jaw area -- was poised for a breakout season. It had been used by a handful of players for decades, but the tale of its creation and development had never been told before. It turned out to be a really interesting story -- check it out here. (And speaking of MLB facial protection, I also really enjoyed working on this piece about the various football and hockey face masks worn by Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Dave Parker when he was rehabbing a fractured jaw in 1978.)
9. Brannock Device Night
Due to an odd confluence of circumstances, last year I managed to convince the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs to wear special one-game uniforms honoring the Brannock Device (i.e., that gizmo they use to measure your shoe size, which is manufactured in Syracuse), plus I got to throw out the first pitch. My own involvement notwithstanding, the story turned out to be a great case study about the process that minor league teams go through when they have one of these one-game theme rebrandings. You can read it here.
10. Wedding bands
For whatever reason, I've always been fascinated by athletes who wear their wedding rings on the field, court, ice or whatever. In 2011, I identified a bunch of those players across various sports and got a bunch of them to talk about it. Full details here.
• One of the privileges of covering the uniform beat is bringing previously untold stories to light, like the story of how the Minnesota Vikings' uniforms were designed by cartoonist Karl Hubenthal. That led to a follow-up piece that explored some counternarratives that emerged in the wake of the first piece.
• Another great untold story: how the San Diego Chargers became the first NFL team to wear a team-colored face mask.
• Speaking of NFL helmets, it was great to provide the definitive account of the San Francisco 49ers' abortive 1991 helmet redesign (which actually lasted six days before it was pulled, not one day as is commonly stated).
• At some point, every sportswriter should create a March Madness-style bracket that has nothing to do with basketball. Mine was about meat.
• One of the strangest stories I ever worked on was about the European clothing brand Franklin & Marshall, which has nothing to do with the small Pennsylvania college called Franklin & Marshall, except it does -- sort of.
• The history of the baseball bullpen cart hadn't been particularly well documented, but I did my best to create a timeline of notable moments in bullpen cart history, which seems newly relevant now that several MLB teams are trying to revive the bullpen buggy phenomenon.
• ESPN was nice enough to send me around the country to cover all sorts of offbeat stories. I learned how to curl in Minnesota; played cornhole with a guy who wore a Mexican wrestling mask and a necktie in Chicago; checked out the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and a bunch of other cool stuff in the Twin Cities; and attended my first NASCAR race in Daytona, among lots of other great adventures.
• Since I was a little kid, I've been intrigued by the guys who handle the chains and sticks at NFL games. A few months ago I finally interviewed one of them.
• Teams rarely divulge the full stories of how their uniform and logo designs are developed, complete with all the false starts and dead ends that are an inevitable part of the creative process. But in 2015, the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks gave me full access to the design team that executed their latest makeover. Three years later David Beckham's new Miami-based MLS franchise did the same.
• One of the most interesting stories I worked on at ESPN was this look at how the closed captioning on many MLB ballpark scoreboards is usually done by people who aren't actually at the game.
• When the ballpark where I grew up, Shea Stadium, was slated for demolition, I wrote a lengthy ode to its most interesting visual details. Rereading it still makes me a little misty-eyed.
• There's more to the New England Patriots than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. I wrote lots of Pats-centric stories over the years, including one about how the team's "Flying Elvis" logo was developed and a real heart-tugger about the guy who briefly served as the team's live mascot.
• The best stories to work on are the ones that teach me things. And I definitely learned a lot from this piece about probability rankings in MLB standings.
OK, that's (more than) enough. Thanks for joining me on that trip down memory lane.
Before I go, I want to thank all the talented and patient editors I worked with over the years, most notably Kevin Jackson, David Schoenfield, Thomas Neumann, David Wilson, Jena Janovy and, especially, Mike Philbrick.
I also want to say a few words about my amazing readers. People who geek out over the details of uniforms often take a lot of grief about it. Their friends poke fun at them, their spouses roll their eyes, people on Twitter troll them. Over the years, there have been hundreds, maybe thousands of such people who've emailed me to say, "I'm so glad I found your work -- I thought I was the only one who cared about this stuff." That's pretty special, and I'm very, very happy that Uni Watch has become a place where people can unreservedly and unapologetically obsess over athletics aesthetics. I'm also happy to say I've learned at least as much from my readers over the years as they've learned from me, and that's pretty special as well.
While I'll no longer be writing for ESPN, I'll still be writing about uniforms every day on the Uni Watch Blog, plus I have some other projects in the works. You can also follow me on Twitter and sign up for my mailing list.
See you around -- I'll be the one wearing striped stirrups.
Paul Lukas has loved being part of ESPN. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.