Perhaps The Best Baseball Ethics Story Ever: The Chris Sale Uniform Freak-Out

White Sox uniforms

Last night, incomplete fragments of news came through the baseball media that Chicago White Sox pitching ace Chris Sale had been pulled from his scheduled start against the Tigers. Was he about to be traded? No, we learned that there had been a “non-physical” altercation with someone in the White Sox front office. Huh? What did that mean?

It turned out that the truth was stranger than any speculation. Sale, we learned, had refused to wear a retro White Sox uniform during a “Turn Back The Clock” promotion that nigh, and to ensure that he wouldn’t have to, he cut up all the vintage uniforms, using a scissors and a knife, while the rest of the team was taking batting practice.

As soon as I heard this, I told my wife,”I bet I know exactly which uniforms the team was supposed to wear.” I was right: the White Sox promotion involved giving out free facsimile 1976 uniform jerseys to the first 15,000 game attendees, with the team wearing the infamous fashion abortion perpetrated on baseball by puckish former White Sox owner Bill Veeck, the same iconoclast who sent a midget up to bat in a real game.

Here are those uniforms, almost unanimously agreed-upon by all critics as the silliest baseball garb ever to appear on a Major League player (that’s Veeck in the middle; the ones on the left are the uniforms in question):


It is recorded that the players and the fans hated the 1976 uniforms, which were quickly discarded, especially the version with the shorts, which only appeared in one game. No wonder Sale was upset.

Now to the ethics issues:

  • Sale had no right to single-handedly veto his employers’ promotion, and was completely in the wrong. He could have boycotted that game himself, and pay the consequences: Sale gets a bit over 9 million dollars a year, or $56,000 a game. He could count on a suspension of at least four games, preferably more, if he refused to pitch, so his principled act could have easily cost him a quarter of a million dollars. But what he did was far, far worse. He destroyed team property; he undermined a team promotion; and he defied management, and probably the terms of his contract.

[UPDATE: The White Sox have suspended Sales for five games. ]

  • If Sale were a reserve outfielder or a slumping veteran with a burdensome contract, the White Sox would simply fire him: release him, and say good riddance. If the team wanted to send a clear message that it wouldn’t tolerate such conduct, it would do this to Sale, too. It won’t, however. No team would. Sale is a rare commodity, a great pitcher who is young and under contract for much less than he is worth. Welcome to the King’s Pass. Sale can and will get away with what no lesser player could survive.

Should he?

  • Tough question. Last year, the BBC was faced with a major star, Jeremy Clarkson, who engaged in massive misconduct, and fired him even though it wounded one of its most popular shows. That was principled and right, but no TV show star is as irreplaceable as a young, star pitcher, or as important to as many people as a great pitcher is to a baseball team. Properly punishing Sale would have a negative impact on the team, its players, their chances of making the play-offs, fans, merchandisers, and the health of the franchise. In substantive terms, moreover, Sale wouldn’t lose anything if he were fired; he might even come out with more money and playing on a better team.
  • That dilemma one of many reasons why Sale’s conduct was so wrong. He placed his team in an impossible situation. If it asserts, as it must, that the pampered millionaire athletes in its employ must still follow the team’s directions, it weakens the franchise. If the team lets Sale escape with minimal discipline, then it has announced that big stars can defy management, and worse, though childish tantrums, and face minor discipline. That kind of message can tear an organization apart, and has.
  • By one interpretation, however, Sale was making an important statement that should have been made long ago. Reportedly he argued that the team was placing promotions and marketing above winning by making players wear uncomfortable, ridiculous uniforms. Baseball has been engaging in an increasing amount of these stunts, making players use pink bats on Mothers Day, giving them neon shoes in the last All-Star Game, putting them in ugly customized caps on holidays, and, of course, using them as models during games to sell really bad uniforms of yore. This is unfair to the players, humiliating, and disrespectful. They all have contract clauses requiring them, as a condition of employment, to cooperate with team marketing and promotions, but those 1976 uniforms are just a hop, skip and a jump from making them play dressed like Carmen Miranda. There have to be limits. Management should consider the players’ dignity: just because the team can make them play in horrible uniforms—and remember, the 1976 edition is famous because everyone agrees those uniforms are absurd—doesn’t mean the team should. Sale feels he and the other players were being exploited at the cost of their dignity, but not only that, he felt having to pitch while looking like a member of the Temptations’ softball team would adversely affect his performance. By this analysis, he was standing up for the integrity of the game.

Just to show how far out-of-control these uniform promotions are getting, a Houston Astros minor league team was forced to play a game in these uniforms, inspired by the (bad) Steve Martin-Chevy Chase comedy, “The Three Amigos”:


  • Chris Sale and the White Sox could mitigate this mess, if Sale sincerely and publicly apologized to the team and the fans for going Edward Scissorhands on the uniforms, and in return the White Sox management  promised not to make the players dress like clowns in the future.

I’m betting neither will do it

So where do we stand? Well..

Sale breached his contract, his duty to the team, abused his position as a star and role model, and destroyed team property.

….The White Sox sparked his misconduct by disregarding its obligation to treat the players with respect, and not abuse the employer-employee relationship.

….Sale had a legitimate reason to protest, but chose an unethical manner in which to do it.

….The White Sox are in ethics zugswang,  placed there by their own inattention to their players’ sensitivities and Sale’s irresponsible conduct. Barring  mutual apologies, no matter what course the team takes, it will have negative consequences to the team.

The trade deadline is approaching. The best of many bad alternatives is for the White Sox to get as much as they can in exchange for Sale, and to try to send him someplace he’ll hate, like Cleveland, so his misconduct doesn’t result in a favorable outcome for the player.


Source and Graphics: Washington Post


18 thoughts on “Perhaps The Best Baseball Ethics Story Ever: The Chris Sale Uniform Freak-Out

  1. The White Sox suspended Sale and he was supposedly on the market before this incident. Based on the mini-conflagration in the spring regarding Adam LaRoach I get the distinct impression that a nice streak of anti-authoritarianism runs through Sale. Certainly, that would be likeable in another day and age when salaries were more in line with many of the customers.

    This is baseball schadenfreude – taking delight in the misery of others only substituting opportunity for misery. I hope my Red Sox are able to negotiate a deal with Chicago and they just did pick up a valuable chip in Pomeranz who can be part of any package.

  2. Any word on how the rest of the team took it?

    *sigh* Poor Cleveland. I took a small friend to the movies a week ago – to “Finding Dory” (which was excellent, by the way) – and watched the city being bad-mouthed to the extent that the cartoon characters risked their lives to NOT be sent there. I kept waiting for some kind of vindication at least, but no, not a burbled word. Millions of film-going kids will now fear “Cleveland” as once they did the Bogieman.

    Talking to a rabid baseball fan (worse than Jack), he said to look up The Curse of Chief Wahoo (talking of uniforms, I think that caricature patch has since been dropped), and then do a search for the #1 (arguably the most unethical) of the three worst fan-created riots in baseball history that resulted in game forfeits. At the top of the totem pole, then, above the White Sox/Tigers Disco Demolition, and the field-swarming at the final Washington Senators game, there sits the Indians vs. Rangers Ten Cent Beer Night riot in 1974 ….

    • Oh, I’m sure the rest of the team wanted to kiss Sale. On the Red Sox game broadcast, Jerry Remy, who played against the Chisox when they wore those things, said that he was 100% behind Sale. “I was embarrassed to be on the same field with them,” he said.

  3. Reminds me of the advise I got when I first started out acting.

    Never complain about a costume or a prop ever.

    Just catch the first on a nail backstage ripping it, and drop the other one insuring it breaks.

  4. Saw this post coming as soon as I read the story.

    Who’s the pitcher in the photo? I thought Lerrin LaGrow and then Jerry Reuss but both of them are wrong. LaGrow was in St. Louis in
    76 and Reuss was a leftie.

    Watched lots of Sox broadcasts ’78 through ’81 while living in South Bend at the edge of Chicagoland. Jimmy Piersall and Harry Caray. What a wreck. And of course, there was “Disco Sucks Nite.” People winging records through the air and a bonfire of records ignited in center field during the seventh inning stretch, causing the game to be suspended as the pile of molten vinyl rendered the outfield unplayable. Brought to you by: Bill Veeck. Thank God Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn bought Veeck out.

  5. Would your take on Sale be different if he was intentionally falling on his sword so that his teammates didn’t have to wear the awful uniforms? Specifically, if he wasn’t counting on the King’s pass, and was engaging in non-violent protest. I’ve always considered willingness to take the punishment without complaint a key element in non-violent protests of the law, and I think there are similarities here.

  6. So that’s what people worse in the old days. I figured if you went back that far you’d find ring mail and tunics and maybe togas.

  7. The article I read said he opposed the unis on fit grounds rather than aesthetic grounds. He said they were too restrictive and they would prevent him from executing his motion. The Sox should have had tailored them better. Sure he went ballistic but the organization failed a player. Most of those guys have their pants tailored to within an inch of their lives, unless they’re affecting the baggy trou look. The clubhouse guys screwed up.

  8. I love those uniforms and I am not sure what is meant by ‘quickly discarded’. They wore them for 6 seasons! They are actually quite comfortable and they won the game. They won wearing shorts in 1976 as well. Idea of article is fine, ethics. In no way does wearing these cool uniforms jeopardize winning. So that shouldn’t be part of the discussion.

      • They weren’t wearing shorts for the promotion, so shorts are irrelevant. They did wear those uniforms for 6 seasons. Look up the 1981 team photo. If Sale had a fit problem, it was personal. The uniforms were designed for ease of movement. They won the game without Sale, it didn’t seem to be problem for the team.

          • Why ‘pajama-style’? Is that meant as an insult? Today’s long pants with no socks showing is pajama style. It’s a cool uniform that some like, some don’t. The don’t people present opinion like is some objective reality or make inapt comparisons Carmen Miranda or softball uniforms. It is the early A’s with the v necks and white spikes that drew comparisons to softball uniforms. Whatever Sale’s problem was, destroying property was wrong.

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