Houston Matters

The Long-Lost Story Behind The Astros’ Famous Rainbow Uniforms

Who was behind one of the most polarizing uniform designs in sports history? Writer Paul Lukas unearthed the story and tells us they could’ve looked even more radical.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Astros’ famous – or infamous – rainbow uniforms from the 1970s and 80s are hard to forget with those bright orange, red and yellow horizontal stripes across the chest, punctuated with the big navy blue star.

But where did they come from and whose idea were they? It was known that Houston-based ad agency McCann Erickson had handled the project, but who were the people behind the idea and the design?

That part was largely forgotten — that is until Paul Lukas wrote an article about the uniforms. He’s a sports columnist for ESPN and blogs about sports uniforms at his website uni-watch.com.

Nolan Ryan - Houston Astros
Nolan Ryan pitches for the Houston Astros at the Astrodome sporting the team’s iconic rainbow uniforms from the 1970s and 80s.

Derek Rollins happened to read the article. His father, Gary Rollins, had worked for the Astros and was the point of contact between the team and the ad agency. Derek Rollins contacted Lukas, who then talked with Gary Rollins. And that led to others. And that eventually led to Jack Amuny, a freelance graphic designer who McCann hired to work on the project, and Don Henry, a graphic designer who worked for Amuny.

Paul Lukas tells Michael Hagerty the backstory of perhaps the most memorable uniforms in professional sports – and explains how the uniforms could’ve been even more sensational.

Lukas writes the Astros were looking to do something to draw some attention at a time when the team was bad and the franchise was in bad financial shape. It was a time when baseball teams were trying unusual things with their uniforms.

The Exclusive Untold Story Behind The Astros’ Rainbow Uniform (ESPN)

When asked where the idea for stripes came from, Amuny told Lukas they weren’t necessarily symbolic of anything. He was simply in a “stripes phase.” He bought construction paper in numerous colors, cut strips and played around with the order to find the best arrangement.

The original concept could’ve been more intense. There was supposed to be a white cap with the letter A in a modern, computerized font. But that was nixed because the team had recently purchased a large supply of its current caps. And a computerized font was supposed to be used for the players’ names on the back of the jersey, but that was deemed too hard to read. The finished design also finished players’ numbers on the right thigh so you could see the number from the front while a player was batting.

Astros-Rainbow-Uniforms-Before-And-After
Photos show a concept (left) of what the iconic Astros rainbow uniforms could’ve looked like and what they ended up looking like (right).

While Lukas says some people loved the uniforms and some people hated them when they first debuted, they’re largely beloved now. The team sometimes wears them for throwback days. Their navy blue Sunday uniform tops feature the stripes down the sides. Fans still wear them all the time. Even vendors at Minute Maid Park wear versions of them.

“This uniform opened up possibilities,” Lukas said. “It often shows up on the lists of both the best baseball uniforms ever and the worst baseball uniforms ever, which shows how polarizing it was, how groundbreaking it was, and how it remains, really, a category unto itself.”

And the strongest testament to the legacy of the Astros’ rainbow uniforms is imitation. Lukas has documented numerous high school and American Legion teams that wear their own versions of the jerseys in their own colors. 

“Of all the designs in baseball that was going to become sort of its own template — its own category — I don’t think that anyone would have predicted that this is the design where that would happen,” Lukas said. “But maybe the fact that it’s so different is why that happened. And it’s really pretty remarkable, and it’s a testament to Jack Amuny and the concept that he came up with.”

Astros-Knock-Off-Jersey
One of many baseball jerseys documented by sports writer Paul Lukas that pay homage to the Astros’ iconic rainbow uniforms.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He...

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