Wearing a suit, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack greets Walter Johnson, pitcher for the Washington Senators, in 1910.
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Wearing a suit, Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack greets Walter Johnson, pitcher for the Washington Senators, in 1910.

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In other sports, coaches wear street clothes; in baseball, managers wear uniforms

Bob Greene traces the tradition to original role of baseball captains, who also played

He says a few managers have challenged the tradition and have worn street clothes

Editor’s Note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include “Late Edition: A Love Story” and “Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights.” His forthcoming “The Road Home: Tales from the Back Nine of Life” is being previewed at twitter.com/the_road_home. Watch him on CNN Newsroom on Mondays during the 9 a.m. (ET) hour.

CNN —  

What sports fan can ever forget it?

The stirring sight, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, of the Packers charging out of the tunnel at Lambeau Field alongside their legendary leader, Vince Lombardi, who is wearing a football jersey, shoulder pads and a helmet as he prepares to coach his squad to another victory.

Or the heroic vision of Coach Phil Jackson with the members of the Chicago Bulls, or the Los Angeles Lakers, gathered around him during a timeout as, wearing his usual game-day attire of shorts, gym shoes and a sleeveless basketball jersey with a number on the front, he maps out on a clipboard the next series of plays for his team to run.

What? You say you don’t remember scenes like those? You never saw Coach Lombardi on the sidelines dressed like a football fullback, and you never saw Coach Jackson giving instructions to his players while dressed like a point guard?

That’s because it didn’t happen. National Basketball Association coaches dress in street clothes; so do National Football League coaches (albeit with team logos).

But – as you have undoubtedly noticed anew if you’ve been watching the World Series – baseball managers don’t. They dress like their players, and it’s been such an integral part of baseball for so long that fans seldom ask themselves why.

“It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland, through the looking glass, where in baseball things are reversed from the way they are in other sports,” said John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “In trying to explain the reason for it, folklore comes in.”

Thorn knows about the traditions of baseball, and the reasons for them, as well or better than anyone alive. He said that in the earliest years of the game in the 19th century, “The person who was called the manager of a team was the business manager – he was the person who made sure that the receipts were paid and that the train schedules were met. He didn’t make any decisions about what went on during a game.

“The person who did that was called the captain. He did what a manager does today, but he also played. So at first, the person we would today call a manager wore a uniform because he was a participant in the game.”

The tradition – sort of – continued even when, in the 20th century, the people calling the shots in the dugouts became non-players. Some of them wore uniforms even though they were never going to get into a game. But others – Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics and Burt Shotton of the Brooklyn Dodgers may have been the best known – decided that if they were no longer baseball players, they shouldn’t dress like baseball players.

Their position on the matter was rejected. For more than half a century now, every baseball manager – like Tony LaRussa of the St. Louis Cardinals and Ron Washington of the Texas Rangers in this year’s World Series – has worn a uniform.

Some people believe that baseball’s rules mandate this, although the only rule touching on it – Rule 1:11(a) (1) – says: “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs.” Nothing about what a manager must wear.

Other people believe that managers wear uniforms because they routinely appear on the field: during pitching changes, and during arguments with the umpires. But the managers, unlike the players, aren’t on the diamond when the ball is actually in play.

“Maybe it’s just testament to the notion that, no matter how old you get, between your ears you think you’re a baseball player,” Thorn said. If a big-league baseball manager were to show up in the dugout in a coat and tie, he said, “the decision would bring ridicule and scorn upon him. It would not happen.”

At baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, I was told that the best person to ask about the managers-in-uniform tradition was a fellow named Paul Lukas, who runs a website (Uni-watch.com) dedicated to the aesthetics of sports, and who writes about the subject for ESPN.com.

“I don’t want to say that it’s just one of those things,” Lukas told me. “But it’s just one of those things.

“Personally, I think it’s sort of fun that these guys still like to suit up, and, just like their players, decide whether to hike up their pants cuffs or not. Jack McKeon, the manager of the Florida Marlins this past season, is 80 years old, and I like the idea that he sat in his office in his uniform before each game making the pants-cuff decision.”

As the World Series was about to begin last week, I spent a good part of a morning with the eminent philosopher Bob Costas, who broadcasts many sports but loves baseball best. On this particular day – I promise you this is true – Costas was getting ready to go to a friend’s house to play Wiffle Ball in the front yard.

His position on managers wearing uniforms is clear-cut:

“I like it. Can it be amusing? Yes. What’s the reason for it? The answer is, ‘That’s baseball.’ And as with most baseball questions, ‘That’s baseball’ is good enough for me.”

I asked Thorn, the official historian of the game, if he thought baseball would still be around a hundred years from now.

“Yes,” he answered instantly – faster than instantly, if there is such a thing.

And does he think that in a hundred years, managers will still be wearing the same uniforms as their players?

“If I had a dollar to bet” – and if he did, he’d probably be thrown out of baseball – “I would say the answer is ‘yes.’”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.