Fifty years ago, in 1972, the Cubs joined many other teams who had begun to switch from heavy wool uniforms to polyester. The fabric was considered more breathable and easier to wear in hot weather.
Among the things that changed, beyond the fabric, was the elimination of button-down jerseys and belts on pants. The jerseys became pullover and the pants had snaps on the front, and the top denoted by a different color. In the Cubs’ case, that was blue.
On the team’s road uniforms from 1969-71, a number had been used, on the player’s left side. It looked like this:
But the 1972 pullover uniforms had the number in the center, as you can see in the photo of Carmen Fanzone at the top of this post. Why? No other team did this.
Several years ago, Paul Lukas of Uni-Watch figured out why, quoting a contemporary source:
Two guys who did notice it, however, were NBC Baseball Game of the Week play-by-play man Jim Simpson and color analyst Tony Kubek, who called attention to the Cubbies’ unusual road grays — and explained how the design came about — during a broadcast on June 10, 1972. Here’s a transcript of what Simpson and Kubek had to say:
Tony Kubek: The Cubs have got a little something different, a number right in the center. You don’t see any other team with that.
Jim Simpson: Kind of reminds me of a basketball uniform. … Talking to some of the Cubs, Tony, they said that the manufacturer of these nifty-looking double-knits here put the number there, instead of offsetting it as on most uniforms, and when they got it back to the Chicago Cubs front offices, some of the people there looked at it and said, “I like it!” So they kept it there. But they have no number at all on the front of their at-home jersey, only on the away, and it’s in the center. I have not seen that anyplace else.
So according to this account, the centered uni numbers were the result of a manufacturer’s mistake, or at least a misunderstanding.
Here’s a complete broadcast of that game where you can see those uniforms in detail. Check out who the opposing pitcher was that day, too:
At this link you can see representative images of the Cubs’ road uniforms from 1970-89.
Lukas’ article concludes:
It’s easy to see why no team ever had a centered number prior to the ’72 Cubs. In the flannel era, all jerseys had either zippers or buttons, and you wouldn’t want a single-digit uni number to be split in two as it crossed the placket. But when pullovers were introduced in 1970, that problem vanished — no more placket to worry about. Still, the Cubs went back to a more traditional number placement in 1973, which lends further credence to the notion that the ’72 design may have been a manufacturer’s glitch.
So if you were ever wondering why the Cubs’ road uniforms from 50 years ago had the uniform number centered — just for that one year — now you know.