The story of Ty Cobb’s wool sweater

Ty Cobb wears his wool sweater while posing for a photo with an Oldsmobile in Detroit, circa 1921.

We don’t know normally associate sweaters with our National Pastime. In today’s game, we frequently see players and managers donning hooded sweatshirts, or hoodies, in the dugout. Years ago, windbreakers were the choice of uniformed personnel on early spring and fall days. At one time, going back to the 1970s, it became very fashionable for players to wear windbreakers under their uniform jerseys, particularly during the early days of spring training.

Yet, if we go back further, to the 1920s and thirties, we’ll discover that the sweater was the preferred method by which players kept warm in the dugout. The Hall of Fame has roughly a dozen of those sweaters in its collection, but there is perhaps no finer example than the one that was worn by Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. The Cobb sweater was recently featured in a special Artifact Spotlight at the Hall of Fame, along with several other artifacts related to the history of the Detroit Tigers. It is one of the prizes of the collection, a smartly designed piece that remains in outstanding condition despite the long passage of time.

One could argue that a hoodie or a windbreaker makes better sense for players as a tool in keeping and staying warm, but there’s little doubt, at least in my mind, that the sweater looks so much better than its successors. Frankly, the hoodies of today are ghastly; they look cheap and shop-worn, like something out of Bill Belichick’s closet. The windbreakers of the 1970s and eighties were better, and some of them were actually very sharp (such as the ones worn by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1970s), but a wool sweater with a nice design beats them all. And the Cobb sweater is near the top of the list.

This wool sweater was worn by Ty Cobb during his career with the Detroit Tigers. It’s one of several items from Cobb’s career that are in the Baseball Hall of Fame collection. (Photo by Bruce Markusen)

Players in the early part of the 20th century wore the sweater for the same reason as players have come to wear the jackets and hoodies. Designed primarily for dugout use, they helped keep players warm, both early and late in the season. They became especially valuable for pitchers, who wanted to avoid cooling down during the game. A few players even worked out with them prior to the game, though it’s debatable whether the sweater was ever intended to be used as part of a workout routine.

Tan in color and made of 100 per cent wool, the Cobb sweater is a Cardigan style, featuring large buttons down the middle, two pockets in the front, long sleeves and a subtle collar that gives it some shape. With the large “D” and the word “Tigers” added through a patch, there can be no doubt of the team affiliation, something that was readily visible to fans in the stands. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the old-style sweaters that college students used to wear at universities. It’s a sweater so stylish that one could imagine a player wearing it away from the ballpark.

The material and craftsmanship is of such quality that it remains in nearly pristine condition. As Hall of Fame curator and uniform expert Tom Shieber says of the Cobb sweater, “It is robustly made.” Cobb likely used this sweater in the 1920s, toward the end of his long Tigers tenure, but nearly 100 years later, it shows little wear and tear.

The style of the Tigers’ sweater was fairly common throughout the major leagues, but it was not the only type of sweater that teams employed. Some teams, like the Philadelphia A’s, used a belted sweater. Other teams, like the Boston Red Sox, preferred a double-breasted sweater that took on something of a military look. A few teams used elaborate collars, with buttons up the throat.

By the 1930s, the sweaters once worn by Cobb and many other players began to disappear from the major league scene. They started to give way to leather-sleeved coats, wool jackets, and then to nylon jackets. It’s possible that cost had something to do with the shift; the sweaters were likely very expensive to make. The sweaters also might have been more difficult to maintain and clean. And as with most types of clothing, fashion preferences change. It’s possible that players felt the sweaters were a little too “nice,” and wanted something more “rough and tumble” in the form of a jacket.

Whatever the real reason for the change, it’s a shame that baseball sweaters, like the beauty that Cobb once wore, have become a thing of the past. Major leaguers should always take on a first-class appearance. It’s time to move out the hoodie, and bring back a top-shelf wool Cardigan. Ty Cobb would certainly approve.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.