Imagine John Middleton waiting in the Phillies clubhouse on a Saturday night after a tough loss and Rhys Hoskins storming through the doors, angrily ripping off his brand-new jersey and telling the team’s owner that he can trade him or release him before he ever wears that uniform again.
That’s precisely what happened on May 19, 1979, after the Phillies debuted their ill-fated “Saturday Night Special” burgundy uniforms. Greg Luzinski told then-Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter in the Veterans Stadium locker room after a loss to the Expos that he would play for a different team before dressing again in burgundy, a uniform his teammates said made “The Bull” look like a “giant grape.”
The rest of the Phillies joined in, threw their uniforms into the center of the clubhouse, and made sure that the team’s most infamous uniform would last just one night.
“Our clubhouse attendant gathered them together and put them into a laundry cart that was pushed into Never Never Land,” said Larry Christenson, that night’s starting pitcher.
Forty years later, the all-burgundy uniforms are being plucked from the trash and pushed back into the clubhouse. The Phillies will wear their infamous uniforms Saturday night for the first time since that day in 1979.
The new ones look just like the ones worn by Christenson, Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, and Pete Rose. They even have zippered fronts instead of buttons. The Phillies planned in 1979 to wear the burgundy uniforms every Saturday at the Vet. Instead, they lasted just nine innings.
“I didn’t like them,” Luzinski said. “I didn’t like them. Period. Those were terrible. The pants were grape. It didn’t flatter me.”
“They reminded me of a uniform for a Sunday afternoon softball game,” Bowa said. “Like something you see when you drive by a park.”
The Phillies did just about everything they could do in 1970s to draw fans to the Vet. They used Kite Man and Cannon Man. The Great Wallenda walked a tightrope across the stadium between games of a doubleheader, and a “Crazy Night” promotion was highlighted by Benny The Human Bomb blowing himself up.
Then they tried getting crazy with their uniforms.
The Phils had changed colors from red to maroon before leaving Connie Mack Stadium and added a powder-blue road uniform in 1972. They tried wearing it once at home, they lost by 12 runs, and the players said never again. They wore pillbox hats in 1976, but those too were met with chagrin. Three years later, they were inspired by their batting-practice jerseys to introduce an all-burgundy uniform.
“The uniforms were hanging in our lockers, and we went, ‘Oh my God.’ These were dark. These were burgundy. These were just a real different color,” Christenson said. “I was the starting pitcher, so I was focused on the game. But I couldn’t help but just laugh about all of it. It was totally different. It looked like something else was going on in that locker room than a baseball game.”
Jim Lonborg put his arm around Christenson and laughed. They looked across the clubhouse to where Luzinski, Schmidt, and Bowa were zippering their jerseys. Christenson told Lonborg, one of the team’s starting pitchers, that Luzinski looked like a grape. He then dared Lonborg to let Luzinski know.
“I mean, Luzinski got [ticked]. He was livid,” Christenson said. “It got pretty wild in there before the game.”
The Phillies lost that night to the Expos, 10-5. The uniforms were an easy scapegoat. They were ugly and didn’t fit right. That explained why they lost.
“We had a bunch of guys who were really superstitious,” Bowa said. “It was the uniform’s fault.”
But four decades later, Christenson takes the blame. The Phillies were ahead, 4-0, when he beaned Expos catcher Gary Carter. Christenson and Carter played winter ball together in Puerto Rico, but the pitcher didn’t like him.
“I had about enough of him. He would run down to first base like Pete Rose,” Christenson said. “I just didn’t like his antics. He also hurt us, and they were a tough team.“
So he brushed him back in the second inning and Carter, the future Hall of Famer, fell to the dirt to avoid a fastball. Christenson worked an 0-2 count in the fourth inning against Carter and decided to throw inside again. This time, Carter failed to get out of the way.
“He then came out running to the mound. I threw my hat down and my glove down,” Christenson said. “He charged the mound, but he only came three-quarters of the way and then ran directly to first base. I was screaming at him, ‘Get your [butt] back here. I want a piece of you.’ ”
The benches cleared, but there were no ejections. Christenson picked up his cap and glove, and the game rolled on.
“I thought it was going to be a brawl in these purple-nurple uniforms. But nothing happened,” Christenson said.
The only thing that happened was the Expos lineup came alive. An inning later, Montreal jumped on Christenson for four runs and forced him from the game. The Expos scored 10 straight runs before the Phillies scored a run in the ninth. The Phillies seemed headed for an easy win in their ugly uniforms before Christenson hit Carter in the head.
“I woke them up,” Christenson said. “Instead of just playing the game, my thing against Gary Carter ended up being where I opened their eyes.”
Maybe the players would have never railed against the all-burgundy uniforms had Christenson not given the Expos a reason to rally. Perhaps the Phillies would have worn them every Saturday if they had won that game. Instead, they sold the uniforms — jersey, pants, and cap — through the mail for $200 to raise money for charity.
Instead of celebrating a win, Christenson returned to the clubhouse early as an early-season loss in a disappointing season unraveled. Carpenter, as he always did, soon came down from the owner’s box, turned a locker chair backward, and waited for the players. Christenson iced his arm and was sitting at his locker when Luzinski stormed up the tunnel.
“He looked right at Ruly Carpenter and said, ‘Ruly, I’m never wearing this uniform again. You can release me. You can trade me. I don’t care. I’m never wearing this thing again,’” Christenson said.
The Phillies decided to keep Luzinski and release their burgundy uniforms. Bill Giles, then the team’s vice president, told the press that the uniforms didn’t fit right and that photographers had trouble taking pictures of them because they were so dark. That was enough to never see them again. Until now.
“I was thrilled,” Luzinski said. “Phew. They were horrible. Thank God that it was just one day.”
The Phillies now wear their powder blues at home on occasion, they brought back the pillbox hats three years ago for a series, and they will wear the burgundy uniforms Saturday night. What was once old is new. But even stranger, what was once reviled is now enjoyed. If John Middleton needs any immediate feedback, he can wait in the locker room Saturday night just as Ruly Carpenter did.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s coming back,” Bowa said. “This generation, they might like it. The millennials. They like that loud stuff. But when I know everything is messed up is when they go back to bell bottoms.”