Longtime Boston Red Sox player/manager/commentator/coach/ambassador Johnny Pesky died at the age of 93 earlier this week marking an end to his incredible 61 year run with the Red Sox ballclub.
The Boston Red Sox did what any team does these days when an important part of their past passes away, they announced they would be honouring Pesky by way of a uniform marking for the remainder of the season.
Typically a team will sport either a simple black armband or maybe the players number on a black circle. Boston will be doing both, wearing the #6 on a black circle for home games and a black armband for road games – the reason for this possibly because the road uniform already has a patch on each sleeve.
The idea of honouring a fallen member of the team on the uniforms of the players is as old as Major League Baseball itself. Seriously. The first documented instance of a team wearing a memorial patch is from the National League’s inaugural 1876 season when the St. Louis Brown Stockings affixed black crepe (a popular memorial fabric of the Victorian era) to their uniform to honour catcher Tom Miller. The club announced “that we, his late associates, wear a badge of mourning for thirty days as a token of respect for his memory.”
In the following seasons several more teams would follow this pattern when a player, manager, or owner died. Even those who weren’t a member of the team at all would receive uniform honours. In 1878 the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Chicago Cubs) and Milwaukee Greys wore black crepe markings after the death of Chicago Tribune Sports Editor Lewis Meacham.
Occasionally, league-wide uniform memorial markings were worn, 1889 NL stolen-base champion Jim Fogarty was the first to get league-wide recognition when he died after a bout with tuberculosis in 1891. Every team in the National League and American Association wore the black memorial marking on their uniform marking the only time a player was recognized by the entire league. After that league-wide tributes were reserved for special instances, in 1909 when National League President Harry Pulliam shot himself every NL team wore a black armband for the remainder of the season. The final league-wide tribute was worn in the National League in 1923 after the death of U.S. President Warren Harding.
When Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed after being hit in the head with a pitch in 1920 the Indians weren’t the only team to honour Chapman’s memory. Several clubs in both the American and National Leagues joined in by wearing memorial armbands, including the New York Yankees – the team Chapman was facing when he was thrown that fatal pitch. Cleveland would ride Chapman’s memory all the way to winning the World Series that season.
For nearly 100 years the armband was the only way a team would pay their respects on their uniforms, it wasn’t until the Pittsburgh Pirates had their franchise rocked by the death of Roberto Clemente on December 31, 1972 that this would change. Pittsburgh, deciding that a simple armband wasn’t enough for their fallen star, honoured Clemente throughout the entire 1973 season by wearing his number 21 on a circle on their left sleeve.
From that point on seeing a deceased persons uniform number or initials on a jersey was not uncommon and in fact was (and is) still used more often than the traditional black armband.
The San Diego Padres wore “RAK”, the initials of their team owner Ray A. Kroc on their jersey sleeve for three whole seasons (they must have been devastated, or the new owner couldn’t afford to have it removed) from 1984-1986, the Yankees also went multiple seasons when they wore a black armband from 1979-1980 after team captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in August of 1979.
In 1984, the Chicago White Sox lost two of their coaches within a month of each other, when both Charlie Lau and Loren Babe (who had been named coach by the Sox only to qualify for MLB health benefits) lost their battles with cancer. The team responded by wearing a dual memorial patch, Lau’s and Babe’s uniform numbers of 6 and 46 separated by a slash on a baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays topped them all in 2005 when they wore baseball’s only triple-memorial patch after they lost former pitcher John Cerutti, former manager Bobby Mattich, and former outfielder Doug Ault during the off-season.
The Montreal Expos are the only team to honour the athlete from another team in their hometown when they wore the number 9 on their jerseys in 2000 after the death of Montreal Canadiens player Maurice Richard. This created an odd sight when paired with the uniform of Expos first baseman Lee Stevens – who wore the #9 at the time. For the record, the Montreal Canadiens did not wear a patch for Richard.
Last season over half of Major League teams were wearing a memorial patch at some point during the season, here in 2012 it’s much fewer with only four teams thus far. In addition to the aforementioned Boston Red Sox tribute to Johnny Pesky, the Chicago White Sox are wearing two patches – honouring Kevin Hickey and Moose Skowron. The Mets have been wearing a patch in memory of Gary Carter all season, a home plate with KID 8 on their sleeve, and finally San Diego is wearing a black patch with the number 48 for bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds.