By Matt Alberston, Historical Columnist
On July 7, the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres trotted onto the Citizens Bank Park sod dressed in retro 1983 uniforms. It was the first Turn Back the Clock Night on the Phillies' schedule this season and the Philadelphia faithful were thrilled to see the home team in their classic maroon striped home jerseys. A few weeks later in Milwaukee, both the Brewers and Phillies again turned the clock back, the Brewers donning their Harvey's Wallbangers retros while the Phillies took the field in the incredibly popular Regan-era powder blue away jerseys. We swore we could see Robin Yount and Mike Schmidt running onto the field. Phillie fans around the world talked about the powder blue's appearance at work by the water cooler and at home on social media. Their voices were loud and clear: Bring them back!
As a person who obsesses about the past, I can appreciate the outpouring of nostalgic support. Each of the four major American sports have scheduled countless Turn Back the Clock games and (typically) fans cannot get enough of watching modern players in bygone attire. For the Phillies in particular, those maroon and powder blue jerseys remind us of when the club sat at or near the top of the major league power rankings year in and year out. But are the Phillies really doing their rich history justice with their recent turn back the clock uniform choices?
The first Turn Back the Clock game was hosted by the Chicago White Sox in 1990, which celebrated Comiskey Park's history during its final season. The Sox wore 1917 uniforms that day in celebration of their then-most recent World Series triumph. Comiskey Park ushers wore period dress as well, while the lineups were announced by way of megaphone. But that wasn't all; general admission tickets were rolled back to 1917 prices, a hefty $.50, while other tickets were half price. The result was a raging success and the origin of the major league supported nostalgia craze. The Phillies, the oldest one name, one city franchise in professional sports, were not to be outdone and scheduled their first "Nostalgia Day" the next year in 1991.
The Phillies were the second club to hold a Turn Back the Clock promotional game, hosting the Cincinnati Reds on June 16, 1991. It was the first time both teams wore retro attire. The clubs wore 1957 uniforms issued by Rawlings and dropped the contest to the Reds 8-6 that day. A tiny notice on page 85 of The Philadelphia Daily News mentioned that the Phillies' new uniform design was put on hold due to challenging contract negotiations between Major League Baseball and its new uniform supplier, Russell Athletic. Evidently fan support of the Whiz Kids era uniforms worn during Nostalgia Day was great enough that the club eventually decided upon that design, with a few alterations, for the 1992 season.
One might consider the 1992 season to be a completely nostalgic experience. Whiz Kids-esque uniforms were the regular garb and the Phillies finished dead last in the National League. Yet, the new-old uniforms did not deter the franchise from participating in yet another Turn Back the Clock game, this time against the Giants in San Francisco . The clubs wore 1942 uniforms, meaning it was likely the Giants jumped on the nostalgia train by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Giants' last season in New York. Curt Schilling & Co. wore the rather boring, yet unique, gray uniforms with "PHILS" in black block lettering gracing their chests, accompanied by an equally plain black cap with a white block "P" on the front. The Phils edged out their long-time National League foe 12-3, as Schilling and Cliff Brantley combined for nine innings and three earned runs.
Related: If the Phillies added another jersey, what would it look like?
Sticking with the 1940s theme, the Phillies scheduled a Turn Back the Clock Night at the Vet on June 21, 1992 against the Cubs, where both teams wore 1948 retro duds. The 1948 Phillies uniform should be familiar to Sunday Plan ticket holders, since the Phillies revived this outstanding design as their Sunday alternate uniform in 2008. Back to Nostalgia Day at the Vet 1992, the Phils dropped the decision 5-2 before 58,872 fans as starting pitcher Kyle Abbot surrendered four earned runs in five-and-two-thirds innings of work. For the select group of Phillies fans who delight in baseball history and baseball material culture, the 1992 campaign was a wonderful treat.
During the haze of the Phillies' first pennant race in 10 years, the club played a much reduced Pirates squad at Veterans Stadium in 1933 uniforms made by Philadelphia nostalgic clothier Mitchell & Ness. Adding to the excitement was 1991 10th overall draft pick Tyler Green, making his first major league start. The limber 6' 5 Green was a highly-touted pitcher who quickly ascended the Phillies' farm system ladder. The crisp white home jersey's with a classic Old English style "P" fared better than Green's debut, where he lasted four-and-two-thirds innings, allowing three earned runs on nine hits. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist B.J. Phillips explained the day perfectly. "Here they were, 1993's proudest throwbacks dressed for the part in old-time uniforms, the meanest, dirty-shirted team in baseball, and half of them came out wearing wussy high-tops [shoes]." Inquirer columnist Diane Pucin also lamented the fitment, saying, "these bloody 1933 Nostalgia Day pants [were] too tight." Nevertheless, the Phillies triumphed over the Bucs at the Vet 5-4.
The annual event was not repeated again, for whatever reason, until 1997 when the Phillies visited the Braves and both teams wore 1938 Negro League uniforms, specifically the Philadelphia Stars and the Atlanta Black Crackers. But that's where the creativity ceased. The Phillies did not wear another retro uniform ensemble until 2002, when on July 19-21 and July 26-28 they turned the clock back to 1980. In the ensuing years, the Phillies danced around the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s era uniforms. While the 1960s uniforms are clean and crisp, there's little difference between those and what is worn on a regular basis, while the marron and white/powder blue uniforms are incredibly popular. The more recent Turn Back the Clock dates were combined with participatory promotions where fans came to the park decked out in period fashion.
It's clear that the Phillies organization understands what will bring people to Citizens Bank Park. Familiar uniforms from yesteryear and clubhouse stores stocked with that particular scheme, sometimes including a familiar fan favorite name from better times, are just too enticing to pass up. Few things are more powerful than nostalgia, that heart-warming emotion that floods our minds with rose hued memories. For the fans, paying more for retro clothing or merchandise than for our tickets is completely worth it. But there has to be more to the modern nostalgia day than using the past as a means for profit, right? Is there anything wrong to celebrating the past, just to celebrate a rich history? I don't think so and I wish the Phillies would get more creative with their Turn Back the Clock games.
The perfect opportunity presented itself on April 9, 2015 in the final game of a home series against the Boston Red Sox. Most probably didn't know it, but 2015 was the 100th anniversary of the Phillies' first pennant winner. The Phils' opponent in the 1915 fall classic? The Boston Red Sox, of course. While nobody can control the weather, it was an absolutely miserable affair for several reasons: cold with a few raindrops, David Buchanan was starting, and the only on-field recognition paid to the 1915 National League champs was the appearance of the absolutely marvelous New Era 1915 retro cap. But the Phillies elected to wear their regular home uniforms. A Woodrow Wilson impersonator threw out the first ball from the stands, just as the real Wilson did before Game 1 of the 1915 World Series at Baker Bowl in North Philadelphia. And the 1915 pennant flew between the Star Spangled Banner and the Pennslvania state flag. To top it all off, the Phillies turned in a terrible performance in a 6-2 loss. The entire event seemed poorly planned with little thought given to the celebration of a franchise's first pennant. Unlike most Turn Back the Clock games, this event was far from participatory. So what would a perfect, unique Nostalgia Day look like?
The perfect Nostalgia Day opportunity presents itself on September 15-17, a home series against the Oakland Athletics. The Athletic nickname predates both the Phillies and the Civil War. Multiple clubs used the Athletic moniker throughout the 19th century in Philadelphia and today's Athletics are the fourth (depending on who you talk to) and most recent club to utilize the name.
The Phillies and Athletics battled each other for fans from 1901 until the A's moved to Kansas City following the 1954 season. They even played one another annually in the City Series, exhibition games staged between the two teams. Since the advent of interleague play in 1995, the two clubs have played a series with one another only three times. Major League Baseball should encourage both clubs to dig into their Philadelphia uniform past for the entire series in what could be billed as a Philadelphia baseball history extravaganza. Perhaps the Phillies could encourage the 1952 American League MVP and one-time Phillie Bobby Shantz to throw out the first ball and talk to fans for a few innings. The Pottstown native has made public appearances before, signing pictures of himself in his 1952 A's uniform, and spoke to fans eager to hear about the time when Philadelphia was a two -league town.
Similar to this year's Alumni Weekend festivities, the City Series could be remembered and the members of the Athletic's Wall of Fame honored. It's a pipe dream that will not happen, but what an opportunity to dive into Philadelphia baseball nostalgia and make a few bucks during a pennant-chaseless September.
The Phillies can and should do better in the future. Will they? Do most fans share my sentient? Probably not. But it doesn't hurt to dream.