Last month I did an entry about old-timey baseball sweaters, in which I wrote, “I love these old sweaters and wish they’d make a comeback (or at least get a Mitchell & Ness treatment).”
That prompted two notes. The first one came from Scott Turner, who’s been working for Ebbets Field Flannels out in Seattle. He told me, “M&N did make baseball sweaters. So did Ebbets — these two were based on Negro Leagues designs from the 1920s. They sold for $295. We’re scouting for mills to bring these back, along with other knit vintage styles.”
Then I got a note from Morris Levin, who used to work for Mitchell & Ness back in the 1990s. He wrote:
One of [former M&N honcho] Peter Capolino’s pet projects at M&N back in the early ’90s was having the baseball sweaters recreated. He had a number of samples made — they were quite beautiful (and expensive). Ahead of MLB’s 125th anniversary in 1994, he had discussions with MLB about producing the sweaters for all 28 teams and had artwork done for a few. (There was art for a whole series of KC Royals sweaters around the M&N office for a number of years — old cut and style, with contemporary colors and logos, plus the 1994 patch.) If I recall correctly, he had found someone to produce them domestically — I believe in Maine or upstate New York.
The first thing I took from all this was that I had completely missed the boat on these sweater reproductions — I had no recollection of them. The second thing was that I thought it might be good to talk to Peter Capolino about all this, so I got in touch with him.
Capolino, of course, is the guy who presided over M&N’s transformation from a fairly standard sporting goods outfit into the best-known brand for licensed throwback reproductions. He hasn’t been involved in M&N’s day-to-day operations since Reebok bought the company a few years ago, but he’s still an active historian and keeps his eye on the merchandising scene. He was happy to talk about baseball sweaters. Here’s how our chat went:
Peter Capolino: Let me give you a little background on what I’ve done. From 1989 until about 2001, I made those kinds of sweaters. They retailed for as high as $700 apiece. We even had a contract to do sweaters for all the major league teams in 1994. But what happened was that there was this guy named Rick White — you probably don’t remember that name.
Uni Watch: No, I don’t.
PC: He actually got kicked out on a sex scandal, and the whole project fell through. But during those years I just mentioned, I probably sold from 18 to 36 of those sweaters a year, at $700 a sweater. They weighed two and a half to four pounds, depending on the model. I had a special maker in Maine named Norma Reichert — she made them all for me. Jerry Cohen of Ebbets Field Flannels was very helpful to me by discovering the makers in New England that could accomplish the task of knitting them so accurately. We still share lots of sweater information to this day.
UW: So you sold just a couple of dozen a year?
PC: Yeah. I produced about 16 different styles, and I had researched a lot more than that. There was an old ballplayer named Whitey Witt — he was Babe Ruth’s first roommate in spring training during Ruth’s first season with the Yankees. We had Witt’s sweater. It eventually sold on the collectors’ market for about $25,000.
UW: How were you able to produce such limited quantities? Don’t you usually work on a more mass-produced basis?
PC: No. Whenever I made things domestically, I worked in small quantities.
UW: Yeah, but this is really small. I mean, 18 to 36 a year..?
PC: That was one of the things I loved most.
UW: So this woman up in Maine, was she knitting these sweaters for you by hand?
PC: No, she’d make them on flat-bed machines, which is similar to what the original sweaters were made on in Scotland.
UW: Wait, the sweaters we see in those old photos were made in Scotland?
PC: The early ones, up until about 1898. After that, there were American knitters who were doing them. Norma, up in Maine, she’s 70 years old. And she bowls on Friday, so I can’t talk to her on Fridays. She knits some of the most beautiful things my company ever made.
UW: And these few dozen that you’d sell, would that be through mail-order, or at your own store, or other stores?
PC: All three ways. Remember Andy Hyman at Distant Replays? He’d sell some. A few at the Hall of Fame, too. I even made some for some of the rappers. Remember Andre 3000 from Outkast? He had me make some for him, and he actually used them in an ad.
UW: Based on your research, did every single big league team have a sweater? In other words, were they a standard-issue item in the sport, the way dugout jackets are today?
PC: Yes, up until about 1925. Then they started changing over to the jackets.
UW: Did that happen all at once, or was it a gradual transition?
PC: It seems to have happened all at once. So in 1925, for example, the Washington Senators were in the World Series against the Pirates. That’s the last appearance of sweaters I’ve seen.
UW: Were these sweaters all 100% wool, or was there any other fiber content?
PC: They were all 100% wool. And that’s what our reproductions were, too. They were really my favorite product. They had a shawl collar, button placket…
UW: What’s that second style called?
PC: I don’t know.
UW: When you were making these reproductions, did Major League Baseball ever have any current players — players who were current at the time, I mean — wear the sweaters for any kind of advertising?
PC: No, that never happened.
UW: Why did you stop making the sweaters?
PC: From 1989 through 2000, M&N was a small specialty business. In 2001, we started to blow up at an incredible rate. The sweaters were something that I personally researched, designed, sourced, and made. I was even the best salesman of them. Once M&N blew up, I didn’t have the time to keep that part of the business going. I regret that I did not delegate that category off. Also, retailers in 2002 and 2003 were afraid of the $700 price point. So the sweater business went by the wayside. Then MLB wanted me to do those sweaters for every team in 2004, but that idea died and the sweater business never came back.
And there you have it. Here’s hoping someone brings back these awesome-looking sweaters soon.
Mystery solved: We now have an explanation for the tiny Chief Wahoo sleeve patches that the Indians were wearing in 1980. The answer comes from reader Tom Rogers, who writes, “The small Chief Wahoos were from a weekly promotion run that season by the Cleveland Press newspaper, in which readers could vote for the ‘Press Star of the Week.’ The weekly winners would accrue patches for each week they won (à la buckeye leaves or Stargell Stars). I was a carrier for the Press during that season. If memory serves, 1980 Rookie of the Year Joe Charboneau won the honor the most times that season.”
Sure enough, Charboneau won the award five times, as you can see on this message board thread. A particularly good view of his Press Star patches — the best photo I’ve seen so far — is available on this page, which was sent my way by Robert Erdtmann.
This is yet another case of a uni storyline you’d think we would’ve known about, and a reminder that we don’t know as much as we probably think we do.
Major NBA research project: We have solid uni-historical databases for baseball, football, and hockey. These databases have their limitations, and they certainly aren’t perfect, but they’ve been enormously useful in educating all of us about their respective sports. It’s no exaggeration to say much of my work over the years wouldn’t have been possible without them.
The problem, as I’ve often lamented, is that there’s no comparable database for basketball. Now reader Alex Martin is working to change that. Here’s a note he sent me last month:
For years I’ve been re-creating NBA and ABA logos, wordmarks, and uniforms, and researching the dates for all of them. I’ve created about 450 uniforms so far — some ABA, mostly NBA — and have created about 200 sorted files, each of which contains team information, dates, and close-ups of the uniforms.
I create the files in Illustrator and export them as jpegs into a folder. One thing you may not see at first glance is that each jpeg features several tags. Ideally, when the project is complete the tags will provide enough information so you can sort all the uniforms throughout history by pinstripes, or by color, or by any of the other attributes contained on the tags.
However, the speed bump I’ve run into is finding some uniforms. And even after I find some pictures, recreating the artwork and numbers is often very difficult.
It’s no surprise that Alex is having trouble finding some of the uniforms — even the folks in the NBA offices often have a hard time piecing together the league’s uniform history. But that, dear reader, is where Uni Watch comes in.
I’m no NBA history expert myself, but I suspect there are some of you out there who have photo collections, files full of old clippings, and so on. Similarly, I know some of you are tech-savvy enough to be able to help out with digital renderings.
If you’re interested in helping out Alex in any capacity, or if you’d just like to hear more about his project, contact him here. In addition to helping him, you’ll be helping to fill one of the major uni-cational gaps that’s been plaguing us for years.
Giveaway reminder: Our friends at Gridiron Memories are giving away a college football helmet to lucky Uni Watch reader. Full details here.
Stirrups Club reminder: Robert Marshall is currently taking orders for his latest batch of stirrups. Full details here.
Show-and-tell update: Last month’s Open Mic Show-and-Tell at the City Reliquary was such a hit that we’re doing it again this month. Same deal as last time: Come on down with an item of personal significance and be prepared to talk about it for up to three minutes (or just watch other people do so). Date: Next Thursday, Dec. 16, at the Reliquary. Doors at 7pm, showing/telling at 8pm. Beer will be available. Hope to see you there.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Yesterday I mentioned that Falcons coach Mike Smith was wearing a coat with three vertical zippers, but I didn’t have a photo. Still no photo of Mike Smith, but Chris Bieniek provided a screen shot of Lovie Smith wearing the Bears version of that coat. … Virginia Tech wore VPI throwbacks on Sunday night. … Crazy coincidence: The Brandon Wheat Kings — that’s a major junior hockey team — have a player named Wheaton King. I think he’s just gonna have to play for that team for the rest of his life, period (great find by Donnie Gould). … You know what doesn’t look good with football throwbacks? Biker shorts. That’s Greg Jennings, who looked like he was wearing tan shorts over a navy bodysuit. Also, was he wearing throwback-brown shoes? Looks like it (with thanks to Shane Frederick). … Here’s one of the weirdest high school logo rip-off examples we’ve seen so far. That’s the web site for Saunders Secondary School in Canada. Check out their logo at upper-left — you probably recognize the Sabres’ swords, but you might not realize that the leaping tiger is swiped from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ logo (good find by Didymus Henley). … More on Jason Witten’s “Betsy” helmet. Yesterday we learned that it’s a reference to his high school (Elizabethton). Today we have this article, which includes the following passage: “[Cowboys equipment manager Mike] McCord has repeatedly offered veteran Jason Witten newer models of helmets to try, but the Pro Bowl tight end ultimately sticks with the helmet that he’s worn since his rookie year, which he has nicknamed ‘Betsy'” (big thanks to Scott Martinho). … Hey, check out this unique Dayton helmet design. “According to the Helmet Project, they wore that design from 1975 to 1985,” says Josh Neisler. … A while back I ran this old catalog page scan. Terry Proctor liked the striping on the “Unit #109” model (top row, second from left) and used it as the basis for a new hoops uni for his hometown Livonia High School Bulldogs. “The manufacturer, Letrell Sportswear of Knoxville, Tennessee, had a sample prototype uniform made up. I showed that sample to the coach and the team and they liked the design. We then went to the Athletic Director, who gave his OK and the order was placed. Mike Johnson of the Livingston County News, our county paper, took the photos.” … Jeff Mayer notes that Aqib Talib appeared to be sockless on Sunday. … Amidst the flood of Don Meredith photos that emerged yesterday, one was particularly uni-noteworthy. Never seen that shot before (big thanks to Clay Hervey). … I wouldn’t expect to see Jeremy Roenick posing with his NHL jerseys on Facebook, but that just goes to show that I don’t know jack (big thanks to Eric Bunnell). … Two Uni Watch favorites for the price of one: Rob Ullman’s work is being featured on Jeff Barak’s blog. … Another week, another round of EPL kit reviews from Michael Orr. … Bosox outfielder Mike Cameron will give up his No. 23 to newly signed teammate Adrian Gonzalez in return for a donation to the Boys and Girls Club (with thanks to Mike Ortman). … Also from Mike: Now that he’s on the Nats, Jason Werth will have to keep his beard in check. … Volleyball news from Jeremy Brahm, who reports that there are new logos for the World League (that’s the FIVB men’s circuit) and the Grand Prix (where the women compete).