The question of who does and doesn’t Get It™ rarely comes up in my social circle. That’s because for better or worse (probably a bit of both), very few of my friends are sports fans to begin with. Most of them are artists, designers, or writers, and my experience, generally speaking, is that most creative or alterna-type folks view sports as just another facet of the mainstream culture they’ve largely rejected, not much different from American Idol (which I’ve never seen) or Wal-Mart (where I’ve never shopped).
Fortunately, there are exceptions. One of them is Neil Jenney, a painter based here in New York. I wasn’t familiar with him until last month, when a friend in Connecticut e-mailed to tell me that Jenney’s show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum included some drawings of baseball uniform prototypes, along with an actual cap, all of which had apparently been part of a presentation Jenney had made to the Mets back in the mid-1980s.
I was intrigued, natch, so I called the Aldrich’s director, Harry Philbrick, who happily provided me with photos of the uniform sketches. When I asked if he could put me in touch with Jenney, he said he’d check first to make sure Jenney was willing to talk. He must have been joking, because talking, as I soon learned, is what Neil Jenney does best.
I ended up interviewing Jenney on two occasions: once on the phone last month, shortly before my vacation, and again yesterday at his studio. As you’ll see, he’s a man of strong opinions (some of them rooted in faulty premises) and few inhibitions, a combination that made him pretty amusing to interview. Not all of his loopy energy — call it an endearing belligerence, if you can imagine such a thing — comes through in the printed transcript, but trust me, I found him very entertaining. I also came to respect his eye for uniform details. Although he’s factually wrong about several things, he definitely Gets It™.
Here’s the record of our interviews, beginning with a phone chat a few weeks ago.
Uni Watch: So what’s the story behind these uniform drawings you did?
Neil Jenney: I did them for Frank Cashen, who was the general manager of the Mets. I was gonna do a new Mets uniform. I drew it up in 1984. But I didn’t get to talk to Frank Cashen until 1987. And they had won the World Series the year before, and he says, “Well, we just won the Series — we can’t change our uniform now.” So that’s the story.
UW: Yeah, otherwise I’m suuuuure he would have taken your idea and run with it. Did he say, “Well, if you’d come to me a few years ago we might have considered it”?
NJ (somewhat petulantly): Yes, he did. Hey, those pants are still ahead of their time.
UW: Tell me about the pants.
NJ: They basically have sliding protection for the knees. Which, you don’t realize, to slide every day, you get open sores, and they never have time to close. I can’t believe baseball pants are so primitive. I also put padding on the rear end, which you really do need as well.
UW: Well, a lot of players wear sliding pants…
NJ: Yeah, but I’ve built them into the regular pants. And the reason is, sliding pants stink! They’re too tight! I play baseball in an over-38 league, so I know. I’m a pitcher.
UW: Now, for the jersey, you’ve essentially got a tank top.
NJ: It’s sleeveless, yes. That’s the uniform that real ballplayers prefer. You see these guys come up to the plate and they’re grabbing their sleeve, they’re pulling up their sleeves — it’s uncomfortable. It brings tension to your upper torso.
UW: So getting rid of the sleeves helps eliminate that.
NJ: Yes. Now if you notice, it says “Metropolitans” on the uniform. They’ve never had that kind of uniform. But if you can have “Cincinnati,” you can have “Metropolitans.”
UW: You mean if you can fit all the letters of “Cincinnati”?
NJ: Yeah, yeah. Right.
UW: Now you’ve got the uniform number on the pant leg, which back in 1984, when you designed this, was a feature used by the Astros.
NJ: Yes, and I think it was also used by…
UW: The White Sox.
NJ: No, no. Maybe by the White Sox, but it was used by Montreal.
UW: No, I don’t think the Expos ever did that. I’m pretty certain of that.
NJ: You may be right. You may be right. That wasn’t an original feature, but I did like it.
UW: Let’s talk about the cap, because if the tailoring and features of the pants and jersey are futuristic, the cap is the exact opposite. It’s really old-school.
NJ: Right, right.
UW (waiting for more info): So you were, uh, going for an old-school look there.
NJ (refusing to budge): Yes.
UW: I see that you actually had a prototype cap made.
NJ (proudly): I made it myself.
UW: You constructed it yourself! What about the pants and jer–
NJ: I shouldn’t say I made it myself. I designed the cap myself. I had it made by a manufacturer.
UW: Did you ever have samples made of the pants and jersey?
NJ: I did not, no.
UW: After Cashen turned you down, did you ever approach any other team?
NJ: No, I didn’t. I didn’t have access to other GMs. I had access to Cashen through a photographer who I must tell you about, named Susan Grayson. She was a photographer for the Daily News, and she did a sports documentation project that lasted 12 years, and I assisted her. I used to schlep her equipment around to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. So through her, I had an in with Frank Cashen, because she knew him. But he was the only one. I wasn’t going to go knocking on the door of other teams — I had other things to do. So it just sat there. But I have shown the drawings several times before, including at the Queens Museum.
UW: Do you have any rough sketches or developmental thumbnails, in addition to these finished drawings?
NJ: To be perfectly honest, no. That’s it.
UW: Aside from what you said about the pants being primitive, do you have any other strong feelings about–
NJ: Absolutely! Get rid of the belt!
UW: Get rid of the belt?
NJ: Absolutely! It fucks up your breathing. There’s tension in the torso. I’m a pitcher, right? So it’s very critical, the tension that I have on my belt. And I’ve gotta have the right pants. I’ve played on teams with the wrong pants, and I’ve realized what a difference that can make.
NJ (plunging ahead): So anyway, the point I’m trying to make is this: Hockey players wear suspenders. Because you’ve gotta breathe when you play hockey. But when you pitch, you’ve gotta breathe too. Interior suspenders, I’ve got a design for that, too! I can show you a book that was published back in the ’70s that shows me playing softball with suspenders.
UW: But in your concept drawings, you included a belt.
NJ: Yes I did, because I couldn’t be too radical. I couldn’t go too far pushing the, uh…
NJ: Yeah, the envelope, whatever it is.
UW: Your drawings also show the pants hiked up to…
NJ: That’s right, that’s right! I hate the long pants, and I’ll tell you why: You don’t want weight in your lower legs — it slows you down! Also, it confuses the umpire. You want the umpire to be able to read the knees, OK? Those low strikes, I hate that shit! And I’m a pitcher myself, I don’t want that low shit! Y’know what I mean?
UW: So when you play, you wear your pants hiked up?
NJ: Absolutely, just like A-Rod, just like, uh, well, Manny doesn’t do it. Anyway, I love anyone who wears the old-style knickers.
UW: Now, do you wear actual stirrups, or do you just wear solid-colored socks?
NJ: Stirrups are antiquated. First of all, stirrups were there to give protection to the ankle [as I hope all of you know, this is incorrect — PL]. You show me a stirrup that really gives that kind of protection. Maybe A-Rod’s give protection, because he wears a full stirrup, is that right?
UW: No, he just wears a solid sock.
NJ (undaunted): Well, the thing is this: Those stirrups were originally there to protect the ankles. And then, they stylistically transmutated into the absurdity. It’s like Chinese women’s feet, y’know what I mean? It’s a little over the top, boys! So it doesn’t protect the ankle and it’s just a stylistic, uh, it’s past its useful stage.
UW (exhibiting supreme restraint): An anachronism.
NJ: Yes, that’s right. That’s what it is.
* * *
At this point I had to go. But Neil wanted me to come by his place so I could see some of the photos from Susan Grayson’s documentary project, so we agreed to get back in touch after my vacation. Sure enough, he called the day after my return, and yesterday I found myself at his studio — one of those massive Soho lofts that could easily house half a dozen New York apartments. He sat me down at a small table and then rolled and held a joint (but, oddly, didn’t light it) as we resumed our discussion:
NJ: So I’ve been thinking that what I really wanted to tell you is that the best kind of baseball jersey is sleeveless mesh.
UW: Sleeveless mesh?
NJ: Yeah. I had a jersey like that in ’93. I feel that the sleeveless jersey is really the best, because it reduces the tension in the upper body. There was a power hitter back in the ’50s, which is when I was a kid — I was born in ’45 — named Ted Kluszewski.
UW: Yeah, he cut off his slee–
UW: And he wanted to show off his pipes.
NJ (steadfastly): Y’know, I think having the sleeves there was just so annoying, so uncomfortable. I think that was the motivation. And I believe that that was the beginning of sleeveless uniforms. Then the Pirates did it…
UW: Actually, the Cubs were the first ones, in 1940.
NJ (ignoring me): Well, I remember the Kluszewski issue. And finally Cincinnati said, “That’s it, get rid of the sleeves!” Anyway, attached sleeves [he means set-in sleeves — PL], like a regular T-shirt, are the most uncomfortable. If you have to have sleeves, raglan sleeves are much more comfortable. Dodger uniforms have attached sleeves. The Mets have both raglan sleeves and attached sleeves [actually, the Mets only use set-in — PL]. Red Sox, Yankees, they have raglan sleeves. But I really think sleeveless is the way to go.
NJ: One time back when I was playing softball in Central Park, I saw a guy with a jersey that was sleeveless, but it had raglan seams.
UW: A raglan vest?
NJ (very excited): Yes! Yes!! And it had a zipper! I said, “Where did you get that?” So my theory was that somebody ordered, y’know, regular jerseys and cut off the sleeves. And I thought, “Y’know, that would even be more comfortable, with the seams that way.” But hey, I’ve noticed that the vests nowadays are cut a little differently — they’ve got, like, a little wing at the top. And can get tagged out on that wing!
UW: Yeah, but you could also get clipped by a pitch and get a free base, so maybe it evens out.
NJ (clearly unhappy with this response): Okay, hmmmm…
UW: But you’re basically right. If you look at the old vest photos, from the Bill Mazeroski era, you’ll see that the vests were tailored much narrower across the shoulders. They were designed with a completely different pattern than the regular jerseys, almost like tank tops…
NJ: That is correct.
UW: But today’s vests are just regular jerseys with no sleeves added to them, so they’re fuller across the shoulders.
NJ: That’s right. And I like the tank top style better. I don’t like this extra stuff hanging over the edge. It gets caught on the locker. Shit like that happens — seriously! And it doesn’t need to be there. It’s another thing to tag, y’know what I mean?
NJ: Now there’s another thing I want to bring up, and that would be the uniform of the ’61 Yankees.
UW: Roger Maris had very short sleeves.
NJ (bursting with excitement): That’s right! Those sleeves were two inches!
NJ: It was the length of a frill. That was a unique uniform, and I don’t think the Yankees repeated it in ’62 or ’63. But that is what I call a mock-sleeveless. It is just a gesture of a sleeve.
UW: Almost vestigial.
NJ (missing the pun): That’s right. And my thinking, back in ’61 when I first saw it, was, “Hey, this is a way that the Yankees can modify their uniform. This is how they can go sleeveless.”
UW: You were thinking that at the time?
UW: So you were thinking about this stuff as a kid.
NJ: I delivered the papers, and I’d read the sports pages before I delivered them.
UW: Where was this?
NJ: In Westfield, Massachusetts.
UW: And you were thinking about uniforms the whole time.
NJ: Well, it wasn’t just me — it was an issue in baseball, these sleeveless uniforms. And I thought this little vestige of a sleeve was the Yankees’ way of modifying their uniform while staying with their tradition as best they could.
UW: Yeah, but Maris was the only one who did that, right? The other players on the ’61 Yankees didn’t wear them that short.
NJ: I believe that’s how the uniforms were made. I could be wrong.
UW: I think Mantle’s were a little short but Maris’s were very short. Are you aware of what happened with the Reds in 1997?
UW: Deion Sanders cut his sleeves on his road jersey very short, supposedly to honor Jackie Robinson. But the league office said he couldn’t do that, because all the players’ sleeves on a given team had to match, so the rest of the Reds all had their sleeves tailored extra-short, to match up with Deion. And they had sleeve patches that year, which had to move up onto the shoulder area.
At this point Neil wanted to show me Susan Grayson’s photos, so he brought me over to a gorgeous lithograph that showed a series of sequential Yaz photos. He sent me home with it and asked that I show it to “the people in Bristol,” with hopes that ESPN would do a story on Susan’s project (the full scope of which I still don’t fully understand, but I’ll call Neil back to get more info). Right around then the phone rang and it was Neil’s 19-year-old, who apparently was angling to “stop by and smoke some weed with his old man,” which appeared to be my cue to leave. And so home I went, bringing with me a huge lithograph and a head ringing with Neil Jenney quotes.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Uni Watch got a shout-out in this web chat with Washington Post baseball scribe Dave Sheinin (with thanks to Matt Schudel). … Robert Eden notes that Mike Piazza had an errant tag on Tuesday night (and gee, do you think he has trouble finding his own shoes?). … You can chart the increased pant leg length and bagginess of Barry Bonds’s uniform over the years (along with, y’know, other changes) here (as forwarded by Phil Johnson). … Some town in New Hampshire is all worked up about the school colors for a high school that hasn’t even opened yet (with thanks to Erik Little, who adds, “Believe it or not, this was one of the top stories on the news around here”). … Here’s a real novel concept. … Steve Shanabruch notes that Alaska Airlines’ 75th-anniversary logo owes a certain stylistic debt to the NHL. … Jon Eisen provided this nice shot of the “100” decals that NCAA teams wore in 1969 (and, yes, the photo also shows USC and UCLA both wearing their home jerseys, but we’ve covered that many times already). … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Bizarre eBay auction of SF Giants nameplates here. … This PDF file will provide you with the UEFA’s official kit guidelines for the coming European soccer season (excellent find by Denis Hurley). … More NHL unveilings coming soon: The Senators on August 22nd, and the Lightning on the 25th. … I’ll be watching this afternoon’s Mets/Braves game at Shea with Watch Your Back impresario Brian Corrigan (the rare creative type who likes sports) and then heading to Prospect Park to catch The Hold Steady with Hodge Podge Farm executrix Cal Patch (who’s über-creative and gives not a single hoot about sports), so talk amongst yourselves. Back in the saddle tomorrow.