“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
–Roger Angell, “Agincourt and After,” Five Seasons
Trying to explain the mid-1990s in Cleveland, Ohio may be difficult if you’re not a sports fan.
It may be tough to understand if you’re not a baseball fan.
You might not even get it if you’re not a Cleveland baseball fan.
Maybe you had to be there.
But if you weren’t, the first thing you must know is this:
In a city unaccustomed to happiness … everyone was so happy.
The phenomenon of Jim Thome’s socks might best be explained as a a glorious five-way pileup of history, tradition, faith, idealism, with a generous dusting of the supernatural, all arriving at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at roughly the same time.
An overview, for the uninitiated:
Sock It To Me: A Short History of Baseball Socks
Baseball players have always worn socks, for the same reasons human beings have worn socks from the Stone Age onward: they keep your feet warm when it’s cold; they absorb perspiration when your feet are sweaty; and they’re a buffer preventing that icky, slimy feeling when your bare feet are in direct contact with the insole of your shoes.
But socks became an even more integral part of the baseball uniform after early baseball teams realized that long pants were interfering with game play: in other words, players were tripping over their pants as they ran.
In 1867, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club adopted knickers as part of their official uniform, with two immediate results: first, players stopped tripping over themselves, and second, the short pants revealed the custom-made, knee-high red stockings which gave the team their enduring nickname.1
The high-socks look predominated in baseball for decades. But by the early 1980s –since fashion is prone to evolving tastes, and individual expression and adaptation — many baseball players began wearing longer and longer pants; by the mid-1990s, the vast majority of players had adopted the “pajama pants” aesthetic, with their pant legs covering their socks (and in several instances, deliberately covering the heels of their shoes as well).
A few players, though, either because of personal preference or a desire to honor baseball traditions, retained the old school look, and kept their socks high.
Enter Jim Thome.
Mister Congeniality: James Howard Thome
In 1989, during the thirteenth round of Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft –the 333rd overall pick– the perennially cellar-lurking Cleveland Indians chose a skinny 19-year old shortstop from Peoria, Illinois. He didn’t have much to recommend him — not noted for his fielding, couldn’t really hit, and, in the estimation of his high school baseball coach, not even the best player on his high school team — but he was a hard worker and determined to improve.
Oh: and he was nice.
The first major newspaper feature about Jim Thome after he reached the major leagues noted, “This is one major-league player you don’t expect to show up at the park wearing gold chains around his neck. Thome is a down-home country boy from Peoria, Ill., with hay still coming out of his ears. He wears an ‘aw shucks’ grin and is polite to a fault.”
Maybe the Indians were impressed by Thome’s ballplaying DNA: his grandfather Chuck Thome, Sr. played minor league baseball and was also a standout amateur baseball player. Likewise, Chuck, Sr.’s sons Art and Chuck, Jr. — Jim’s dad — played amateur baseball and fast-pitch softball. Chuck, Sr. remains the home-run champ of his amateur league, and won a battling title; Art and Chuck, Jr. earned five league batting titles between them.
And Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer, created a job just for Jim’s aunt Carolyn so she could add her prodigious talent to the company’s softball team. Carolyn led Caterpillar teams to several national competitions and was elected to the National Softball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Jim had a lot to live up to. He paid tribute to his family’s athletic legacy by wearing the number 25 in honor of his grandfather — and by going old school, proudly wearing his socks high.
Thome told the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Indians beat reporter in 1994 that his high socks were a totem, and not a good luck charm: “To me [high socks are] not a superstition. That’s my trademark. When I was struggling this year, guys in the clubhouse said, `Pull down your socks, pull down your socks.’ I said, ‘No.’ My father and grandfather played minor league ball in the Three-I League. I saw a picture of them and they wore their socks high like this. So I guess this is part of a tradition.”
The reporter was dubious about Thome’s claim — he mutters “Or a superstition” in the next sentence. His skepticism was understandable — probably because baseball is historically lousy with rituals and superstitions.
“Keep me in a daydream”: Baseball superstitions
“We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear, have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods.” –anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, quoted by social anthropologist George J. Gmelch in “Baseball Magic: Ritual, Taboo & Fetish”
All sports — or for that matter, any human endeavor — have always been prone to superstitious behavior.
Baseball players seem to have more of them than any other group of professional athletes. (Social anthropologist George J. Gmelch explains why; unsurprisingly, Gmelch is a former minor league pitcher.)
A lot of baseball superstitions involve clothing. Slugger Jason Giambi famously wore a “gold lamé thong with a flame-line waistband” whenever he wasn’t hitting; he also loaned it out to several of his teammates, including Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon, when they weren’t hitting.
The typical ritual wearing of a clothing item in baseball is less flashy: for example, if a player has been successful in the course of a game, he’ll keep wearing the same jersey until his endeavors, in pitching or hitting, are … no longer successful.
Of course, the jersey has absolutely no bearing on the player’s performance. But even if the player understands that on an intellectual level, it’s hard to argue against something that works, or seems to work — Malinowski’s “emotional play between hope and fear” brought to life.
And, hey, speaking of the emotional play between hope and fear …
Cleveland Sports: The Factory of Sadness
For 52 years, from 1964 to 2016, not one of Cleveland’s major professional sports teams won a championship; the city earned the #1 slot on “The Most Cursed Sports Cities in America” list compiled in 2015 by The New York Times.
ESPN even made a whole documentary on this subject.
By the mid-1990s, out of the city’s three major professional teams, the Cleveland Indians had become the most emblematic of Cleveland’s sports failures. (This was before the resurrected Cleveland Browns.) The Indians hadn’t won a World Series since 1948, and hadn’t been to the World Series –or participated in any postseason contests– since 1954. The team had placed at or near the bottom of the standings for more than 30 years. David Letterman made the Indians a regular punch line in his Top Ten Lists (“Top Least Effective Bits of Infield Chatter, #5: ‘We’re the Cleveland Indians!'”; “Top 10 Dear Abby Letter Signatures, #4: A Cleveland Baseball Team”; “Cleveland Indians Players Top 10 Excuses,” & c.)
But Cleveland’s baseball fans kept hoping. A brand-new jewelbox of a stadium replacing the old, cavernous lakefront Municipal Stadium boded well, as did a crop of talented young players –including Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, Albert Belle…
And Jim Thome, now a first baseman who had learned to hit home runs — frequent and prodigious home runs –with the help of minor league manager/Indians’ hitting coach Charlie Manuel.
The 1994 players strike wiped out much of that season, stranding the team in second place.
In 1995, the Indians started winning almost beyond belief–they won their division by thirty games– and the city of Cleveland collectively went bananas.
Indians games started selling out. And selling out, and selling out — and remained sold out for a then MLB-record six years. When tickets for home post-season games went on sale, the resulting volume of phone calls to ticket outlets knocked out phone service to most of northeast Ohio for a few hours (this was slightly before the widespread popular use of the internet for retail sales).
But the team was heavy on hitting, less so on pitching, and lost to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
Nonetheless, Indians fans remained surprisingly cheerful — the team was young. Surely they’d bounce back in 1996?
They did, but not far enough; they didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs.
1997 found Tribe fans still loyal and passionate, but a little more anxious. The team was still winning, but not, you know, winning –as sportscaster Marv Albert might say — with authority.
By late summer 1997, the Indians had a .523 winning percentage, which would probably ensure them a berth in the postseason, but which paled in comparison to the winning percentages being racked up by the teams they’d be likely to face in the playoffs. 1997 might be a repeat of 1996 — the Indians might go home in early October rather than late October.
But fans still loved this team, maybe more than they loved its previous iterations. The oft-truculent Albert Belle had moved on, and so had many of the veteran players from the 1995 team. The younger guys were assuming team leadership roles, while remaining nice guys.
Maybe they became leaders because they were nice guys.
August 27, 1997 was Jim Thome’s birthday, and his teammate David Justice thought the team should celebrate.
Hey, he said to shortstop Omar Vizquel, we should all wear our socks up tonight for Jim’s birthday.
“Socks up,” replied Omar.
Most of the team did. One of the pitchers didn’t, claiming that no one had told him about the plan. Manny Ramirez didn’t, in an early example of “Manny Being Manny.” Some other players started the game with their pants pulled down, but as the game went on, they started wearing their socks high.
The Indians won against the Angels that night, resoundingly. (Ironically, Jim Thome didn’t play that night.) And that very night, players had already started talking about continuing the high-sock look.
They did, and kept winning — not overwhelmingly, but steadily. In what could serve as the dictionary definition of esprit de corps, championship-starved Clevelanders started steadily buying, and wearing, red knee-high socks in solidarity with the guys on the field –in solidarity, in hope, in faith, in belief.
The Indians made it to the playoffs, and by the time the Indians had defeated the vaunted New York Yankees in the first round, delirious Indians fans had seemingly purchased every available pair of red knee-high socks in Northeast Ohio. Everyone wore red socks. As the Indians prepared to meet the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series, a bride posed for pictures outside the ballpark — wearing red socks underneath her wedding gown.
The Indians unexpectedly, miraculously defeated the Orioles–arguably, the better team — in a hard-fought 7-game series; after a 41 year drought, the team was in the World Series for the second time in three years. Indians manager Mike Hargrove may have summarized the wonder and amazement of fans everywhere when he murmured, “I don’t even know how to spell fate” during a postseason press conference.
Surely this was the year?
In the bottom of the ninth inning, in the seventh and deciding game of the 1997 World Series, the Indians were winning, 2-1.
Thousands, maybe millions, of fans stared down at their red socks, hardly daring to glance at the field, or their televisions. The red socks had brought everyone this far, surely …
No, for our purposes, it’s best to skip to shortly after midnight on the morning of October 26, 1997, a new day, but for Cleveland, a new chapter of an old story, accompanied by the soft sounds of socks being folded up, drawers opening, drawers closing, another reminiscence stored away.
The sighing sound of loss.
In 2016, Mike Hargrove said, “I had a guy ask me that next Spring Training [in 1998] how long it took me to get over Game 7. I told him, ‘As soon as it happens, I’ll let you know.’ I had a guy ask me two months ago how long it took me to get over Game 7 and the way we lost it, and I told him, ‘Well, just as soon as it happens, I’ll let you know.’ It is something you never forget. I don’t think about it all the time, but I catch myself occasionally thinking about it. It’s not as often anymore, but it is still there.”
And that, you would think, would be the end of the story of the Cleveland Indians, their fans, and the magic Autumn of the High Red Socks.
Except it’s not.
Postscript: “That’s some ‘Field of Dreams’ stuff right there.“
As the new century began, the Indians could not maintain their successes of the mid-1990s.
The Jacobs family sold the team in 1999; the ballpark bearing their name became known as Progressive Field in 2008.
After six years, the sellout streak ended, and wide swaths of empty green seats filled the stadium.
As the Indians’ record faded, players began leaving, one by one, either through trades or via free agency. Many of 1997’s heroes were gone by 2002, and in December 2002 came the worst loss of all: Jim Thome signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and left the city which had loved him.
But nine years later, Thome came back to the Indians, very briefly.
He went on to play for several other teams, in several cities, all of them loving him as much as Cleveland did. His prodigious home-run hitting helped — he’d bashed 612 by the time his career ended, and is one of four major league players to have hit 100 home runs for three different teams. But his commitment to community and local charities cemented his place in fans’ hearts. And in a Sports Illustrated poll, a plurality of major league players voted Thome as the nicest player in the game.
All those statistics and niceness made Jim Thome a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Famer in 2018. Although thousands of fans in Phillies and White Sox and Twins jerseys attended his official induction into Cooperstown –and one (1) guy in a Jim Thome Baltimore Orioles jersey– Thome went into the Hall as a Cleveland Indian. Not a surprise, really; he had returned to Cleveland in 2014 & signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the team so he could officially retire as an Indian.
And then in August, 2018, Jim Thome returned to Cleveland one more time, so the team could host a celebration of his Hall of Fame enshrinement. And in the worst-kept secret in Cleveland that day, the Indians also retired Thome’s number 25.
In his speech, Thome said, “To have my jersey retired gives me the chills. To see my number hanging in the rafters in the company of Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Jackie Robinson, Mel Harder, Larry Doby, Earl Averill, Bob Lemon and Frank Robinson, I don’t really know what to say. That’s some ‘Field of Dreams’ stuff right there.”
But there was other “Field of Dreams stuff” going on all around him as well. His father Chuck, and many of his former teammates and managers –Charlie Manuel, Mike Hargrove, Sandy Alomar Jr., Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Paul Shuey, Chad Ogea, Alvaro Espinoza, Paul Assenmacher, Einar Diaz, and Wayne Kirby — sat behind him, all of them wearing rolled-up dress pants…the better to display their knee-high red socks.
The current Cleveland Indians roster stood on the top step of the dugout, with every single player wearing their socks high. (All of them kept their socks up for the entire game–well, all except manager Terry Francona, who had cheerfully grumbled, “I’ll do it for the ceremony, but I’m not doing a pitching change looking like a moron.”)
After the ceremony, on that beautiful blue-sky high cloud day, Jim Thome swung a bat at a ball — the ball was imaginary — hit an imaginary home run, and ran around the bases for the last time in a Cleveland ballpark; one more time his former teammates mobbed him at home plate.
Thome’s 10-year old son Landon accompanied his father during that home run trot, his smile so similar to his dad’s.
Back home in Illinois, Landon plays Little League baseball, sometimes in and around Peoria, where his father, grandfather, great-uncle, great-aunt, and great-grandfather are still legendary for their achievements on the diamond.
Landon wears number 25, just like his dad and his great-grandfather before him.
And on the day his dad’s number was retired in Cleveland, he ran alongside him, his red socks worn high.
The Indians had obtained hundreds of pairs of faux-sanitary socks for stadium ushers and food service workers, so they could share in the high-sock look.
And in the stands, in the bleachers, in the standing-room sections, every single place you looked: Men, women, children — children obviously born well after 1997 — babies, older people, disabled people, people of all genders, ages, shapes, and sizes.
Every one of them wearing high red socks.
And once again: everyone was so happy.
It’s true, as Mike Hargrove said, that the Game 7 loss in the 1997 World Series “is still there,” two decades later.
Here’s what else is still there: love. Esprit de corps.
And thousands of pairs of red socks, pulled out of mothballs.
Whaddaya know? Turns out that losing is not necessarily the end of the story.
Because in baseball — and even in a city unaccustomed to lasting happiness — the story is never over.
1. And eventually provided the Boston Red Sox with their name, but that’s another story, outside the scope of this particular blog entry. Another consequence of the Red Stockings’ sartorial decision, as baseball historian John Thorn told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2011: “High socks displayed manly calves, which the ladies liked.” In 2016, Thorn noted in his foreword to the book Game Worn by Stephen Wong and Dave Grob that the “calf-exposing, lady-thrilling red stockings” were described by a contemporary, and scandalized, Cincinnati newspaper: “Now, be it known that knickerbockers, today so common — the showing of the manly leg in varied colored hose — was unheard of, and when [player-manager] Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red as its hue, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent.” All of this is also well outside the scope of this blog entry, but I thought it was too funny not to include somewhere.
Also, I have necessarily left out a lot of the history of baseball socks; coincidentally, an pivotal moment in the evolution of baseball socks occurred as the result of a freak injury to another legendary Cleveland Indians player, Nap Lajoie. Michael Clair’s “The long history of baseball’s most glorious fashion accessory: The stirrup sock,” is a good overview; the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum’s online exhibits, cited below, are also well-illustrated and informative.
Bamberger, Michael. “The Pride of Peoria,” Sports Illustrated, July 23, 1998.
Baseball-Reference.com. “1997 Cleveland Indians Statistics.”
Berger, Ken. “Indians point to socks, not biceps,” The Associated Press, October 11, 1997.
Campos, Johnny. “Slugger to spectator: Jim Thome back in Peoria with baseball playing son, Landon,” Peoria Journal-Star, June 25, 2016.
Feinsand, Mark, Christina Boyle, and Corky Siemaszko. “Jason Giambi and his magic gold thong,” New York Daily News, May 17, 2008.
Gmelch, George. “Baseball Magic,” Human Nature 1(8): pp. 32-40. 1978, accessed via sportdocbox.com.
Gmelch, George. “Superstition and Ritual in American Baseball,” Elysian Fields Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1992, pp. 25-36. © September 2000, McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, accessed via meissinger.com.
Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame. “The Thome Family.”
Grossi, Tony. “He Wasn’t A Bum, But… Thome’s Rise Amazes His Family Back Home,” The Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH], May 22, 1992, p. 5E.
Harrison, Casey. “Indians retire Hall of Famer Thome’s No. 25,” MLB.com, August 18, 2018.
Hoynes, Paul. “Candy on Path to Success,” The Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH], September 7, 1991, p. 5D.
Hoynes, Paul. “Thome Rallies Indians,” The Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH], October 5, 1991, p. 1D.
Hoynes, Paul. “Indians’ Gesture Turns Into a Statement; Fashion Switch Is Foundation to Player Unity and Sock-cessful Night of Hitting,” The Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH], August 29, 1997, p. 1D.
Knapel, Robert. “Baseball’s 50 Weirdest All-Time Superstitions,” BleacherReport.com, May 11, 2012.
Lukas, Paul. “The lowdown on MLB pants,” Page 2, ESPN.com, July 15, 2010.
Manoloff, Dennis. “Cleveland Indians’ Jim Thome chased perfection with practice, respect and pride,” The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com, September 23, 2011.
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “Pants,” from online exhibit “Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform,” n.d.
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “Stockings,” from online exhibit “Dressed to the Nines: A History of the Baseball Uniform,” n.d.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH). “David Letterman: “Top 10 Cleveland appearances in Top 10 lists,” May 13, 2015.
Ringolsby, Tracy. “Hargrove has stuck with Tribe through thick and thin,” MLB.com, October 20, 2016.
Stiehm, Jamie. “‘Indian summer’ consumes fans at Jacobs Field; Anti-Baltimore flavor absent amid euphoria,” Baltimore Sun, October 11, 1997.
Thorn, John. “Game Worn,” “Our Game,” (MLBlogs.com), February 20, 2018.
The Upshot. “The Most Cursed Sports Cities in America,” The New York Times, June 4, 2015; updated in June 2016 with a notation re: the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA Championship (“The Cavaliers’ victory over Golden State in the 2016 N.B.A. finals Sunday night ended the drought. Perhaps it’s finally time to scratch Cleveland off the list.“).
Vitez, Michael. “Baseball and socks appeal,” originally written for The Philadelphia Inquirer and appearing on Philly.com, the joint web site of the Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, August 29, 2011; accessed via Internet Archive Wayback Machine, August 25, 2018.
Wahl, Greg. “A League of Their Own,” Legendary Locals of Peoria, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2015, p. 100.
Waldstein, David. “In 1997, an Indians Title Was Put in Writing, Until the Story Changed,” The New York Times, October 31, 2016.
Wancho, Joseph. “Jim Thome,” SABR.org, last revised: November 22, 2017.
Yarborough, Chuck. “Jim Thome is the nicest guy in baseball, say his fellow players and Facebook,” The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com, May 19, 2011.