Back in November I got the following note from double-knit uni expert Bill Henderson:
I’ve come across someone you must meet. He’s a fellow who recently bought my jersey guide and then started sending me comments and corrections. He has tons of detail and lots of photos to back up his comments. I was intrigued, so I wrote back to him. Turns out he was the local uniform lettering guy for the Oakland A’s from the late ’80s up until the time Majestic started lettering all the jerseys at the factory. He has some great stories. I asked him if he wanted to meet you and he was thrilled with the idea.
That was my introduction to Steve Sale, who was the A’s stitcher for 15 years. I was excited to speak with him, because stitchers usually work way behind the scenes, even by uniform standards. I’ve had contact with dozens of equipment managers over the years, but only three stitchers: Russ Gompers (Mets), Joe Hilseberg (Orioles), and Marge Switzer (Packers, and she was very guarded during our one interview). So I jumped at the chance to interview Steve. Here’s how our conversation went down:
Uni Watch: How old are you and where do you live?
Steve Sale: I’m 52, and I live in central California, more than an hour from Oakland.
UW: When did you work for the A’s?
SS: From 1988 through 2003.
UW: What were you doing prior to that, and how’d you get the job with the A’s?
SS: I was working in retail warehouse management — I did that for many years. And I knew the guy who used to do the lettering for the A’s, and he told me one day that he was gonna quit doing it. He knew I was into collecting and that I liked to dabble in the lettering and all that.
UW: So you were already a jersey collector, and you’d do some of the lettering on your own jerseys?
SS: Yeah, I always had a fascination with that. So this other guy told me, “Steve [Vucinich, the A's equipment manager] is gonna need somebody, so why don’t you go down and talk to him?” This was in early 1988 — I think the season had just started. So that’s what I did.
UW: How did you get a meeting with Steve? I mean, you’re just some guy walking in off the street. Did this other guy help arrange the meeting for you?
SS: Nope — I just called him, introduced myself, and offered to help him out.
UW: Did you already have a sewing machine and a heat press and all the other tools of the trade, from working on your own jersey collection?
SS: No. At that time I was just using an iron and ironing board. In fact, I hadn’t done any sewing at all yet. When I got the opportunity with the A’s, I had to have someone else do the sewing until I learned how to do it.
UW: So you would heat-apply everything, but you kinda outsourced the sew-down phase?
SS: Yeah, until I learned. Then my wife bought me a sewing machine and I taught myself how to sew.
UW: Did Steve know that you couldn’t sew?
SS: He didn’t care. He just wanted it done right. He didn’t care who did which part. In fact, the way I got the job was that he showed me a sample Don Baylor nameplate so I could see how they did their lettering, and I said, “Um, that’s done wrong.” It was the wrong fabric and the wrong font. And that’s how he knew that I knew my stuff, and I was hired on the spot.
UW: Why did you stop working for the A’s in 2003?
SS: I had a full-time job in addition to my stitching work for the A’s, and it just got too demanding.
UW: So being a stitcher for a big league team doesn’t pay a full-time wage?
SS: No, you can’t support yourself just on that.
UW: What was it like working for Steve? He’s always struck me as a really decent guy.
SS: It was the best, the most fun I’ve ever had. Steve’s a good guy, and he always treated me like one of the guys. It was hectic at time, but it was a really fun experience.
UW: As a stitcher, you worked for the home team, obviously, but you did work for visiting teams passing through, right?
SS: That’s correct — I did work for every American League club. In fact, I got teased a lot by visiting ballclubs when they’d see me with my little table and sewing machine. They’d set me up in the umpires’ dressing room. Players would come by call me Betsy Ross and all kinds of other stuff.
UW: Do you think they called every stitcher in every town Betsy Ross, or was there something special about you? I mean, did every stadium have someone like you in the umpires’ dressing room, sewing away?
SS: Every team has a stitcher. But from what I understand, most of them don’t come to the ballpark to sew on-site. Say Oakland goes to Anaheim and they need some sewing done while they’re on the road. They’ll send out the jerseys to whoever does Anaheim’s stitching. It’s unusual to have someone doing right there at the stadium like I did.
UW: What sort of stuff would you have to do for visiting teams? Like, if a guy tore a hole in his knee while sliding into second, you’d have to repair that?
SS: It wasn’t so much the mending as the call-ups and the trades.
UW: Were some teams more attentive to certain details than others?
SS: The White Sox and Yankees were always very particular. The Yankees, not having names, they always wanted to make sure the number was the right amount of space down from the collar.
UW: When it comes to the player names on jerseys, where do you come down on the issue of direct-sewn lettering vs. nameplates?
SS: Oh, I’m 100% nameplates.
UW: Because you think it looks better, or because it makes your job easier?
SS: Both! It definitely makes the job easier.
UW: What’s the craziest or most unusual stitching situation you ever faced?
SS: Two of them come to mind. Years ago there was a Japanese executive visiting the A’s, and they wanted to give him a jersey with his last name in Japanese lettering. Steve gave me a printout of how the characters were supposed to look, and I had to re-create that — that was pretty challenging.
Then there was the time Cleveland was in town, playing the A’s, and Ricardo Rincón was traded from the Indians to the A’s during one of the games. For Rincón, it was easy — he just walked down the hall from one clubhouse to the other. But for me, I had to make a jersey for him on the spot. I had come to the ballpark to drop off some work, and then my wife and I were going to stay and watch the game. But then Steve said, “We have a trade in the works, and I need you to letter up this jersey.” So I had to set up my sewing machine in [manager] Art Howe’s office, I’m sitting there sewing like crazy, I’ve got clubhouse guys checking in every few minutes to he how it’s coming along, and then Billy Beane comes in and starts talking to me while I’m trying to work.
The deal happened during the early part of the game, and Ray Fosse even made mention of it during the televised broadcast. He said, “I imagine Steve Sale is busy in the clubhouse getting this jersey ready.”
UW: Well, at least it was a simple name, without too many letters. Hey, speaking of trades, you were probably one of the first guys to know when a trade was going down, right? Because you’d have to make the new jersey.
SS: Exactly. I’d know before the media did, but I could never say a word. When McGwire was traded in 1997, Steve called me on my way home from work. I was an hour away from Oakland and had to turn around and go to the ballpark to pick up the uniforms for the players the A’s received in the trade.
UW: Have you ever misspelled a name or made any sort of similar goof?
UW: Did you ever almost make a mistake, but then you caught it before you brought it in?
SS: Yeah. One time I was doing a jersey for Mike MacFarlane, and I had put a space between the “c” and the “F.” He walked by while I was in the middle of doing it and said, “Hey, that’s not right.” So I fixed it right there.
UW: Last summer Steve sent me a little souvenir: a nameplate for Eric Stuckenschneider, which had been lettered up in 1999. That’s 16 letters! Stuckenschneider hurt his shoulder and ended up not playing, so the nameplate never got used. Did you work on that?
SS: No, thankfully, that came from the factory, so I didn’t have to do that one.
UW: Did any players have any particular quirks that you had to account for, like in terms of customizing their jerseys or something like that?
SS: Edwin Nuñez, a pitcher, none of the other teams he’d been on had put the tilde over the “n” in his name, and he said he wanted it on there. So I had to add that to his jerseys.
UW: Nobody ever had a more unusual request than that?
SS: Actually, the oddest request I ever got was when Mark McGwire came to me because his jock was falling apart and he wanted me to restitch it.
UW: Seriously?! Couldn’t he just get a new one?
SS: I’m serious, man. And I just said, “Okay, not a problem.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “How the hell am I gonna do this?”
UW: So did you do it?
SS: Yeah. Definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.
UW: Were the any players who were a real pain in the ass?
SS: The worst player I ever dealt with was Joe Morgan. Oh my gosh. He was a prima donna. One time I was doing some work for the Giants — I did some work for them, too — and I walked into the clubhouse. Now, Wilson was making the Giants’ jerseys at the time, and they had apparently sent a size 44 jersey for Morgan, when he wore a size 40. So I walk into the clubhouse and Morgan just lets me have it, cussing at me, he throws his jersey at me, he goes, “Hey you, this is your fault! What kinda shit is this? Fix my fucking shirt!” And I went nose-to-nose with him and said, “Hey, you don’t ever talk to me that way.” He and I nearly got into a fistfight. A few players had to break us up.
UW: Aside from that being no way to treat another person, why would he even think you were responsible for his mis-sized jersey?
SS: Because he knew I worked the jerseys, so in his mind he probably thought any problem with the uniforms was my fault.
UW: Did he eventually apologize?
SS: Oh, no. No way.
UW: What about a really nice player?
SS: Goose Gossage was probably the best. When he was with Seattle at the end of his career, the Mariners were in town to play the A’s. The Seattle equipment manager discovered that someone forgot to pack Gossage’s bag before the Mariners left for their road trip. So Gossage arrived in Oakland without his jerseys, and I had to make up a replacement jersey for him while the game was being played. The manager, who may have been Lou Piniella at the time, was getting nervous because he wanted Gossage to start warming up, so I was under intense pressure to complete this as fast as I could. Goose would come by every so often to check on the status, and when I would tell him that I was almost done, he would say, “Take your time, don’t worry.” When I was finally done, he was so appreciative that he gave me an autographed ball and a hat. I didn’t ask for these, but that showed what kind of classy person he was.
UW: It used to be that nobody knew about equipment managers, but I think that has changed somewhat. But stitchers are still pretty unknown by the public at large.
SS: Yeah, we’re under the radar. People don’t even think about us unless a player’s number is falling off or something like that.
UW: Would you get a share of the clubhouse tips, or a World Series share, or a World Series ring? Anything like that?
SS: No. I’m an independent contractor, so I don’t get any of that stuff.
UW: But you were in the clubhouse a lot — wouldn’t players tip you?
SS: No, not at all. One time Terence Long had a couple of throwback jerseys he wanted me to letter for him — not A’s jerseys that he’d wear in a game, but just for his personal use. This was when throwbacks were really popular with rappers and all of that. So he gave me a really nice tip for that.
UW: I know that equipment managers tend to know each other — it’s like a club or a fraternity. What about stitchers? Do you guys all know each other?
SS: No, I have no idea who any of the other stitchers are. One thing I was proud of was a few years ago, some of the other west coast teams — Anaheim and Seattle — had somehow mentioned to Russell Athletic that they really liked the work I did for them when they passed through Oakland. So Russell asked me if I wanted to handle all the west coast jerseys for them. And at the time, working by myself, it was just too much, too overwhelming, so I couldn’t do it.
UW: So now you’ve been away from the team for several years. Do you miss it?
SS: Definitely. I miss the fun of being at the ballpark. And one thing that was fun, I’d get to letter up jerseys for celebrities — Vince Gill, Phil Mickelson, Sharon Stone. And when the A’s went to the White House in ’89 after winning the World Series, I got to make a jersey for the first President Bush.
UW: Did you get to go to the White House with them, or was that another perk that doesn’t trickle down to the lowly stitcher?
SS: No, I didn’t get to go. But it was very gratifying when I saw the photos of Tony LaRussa and Bush holding up the jersey.
UW: Are you still in touch with Steve Vucinich?
SS: I haven’t seen Steve since I left the club. I live farther away from Oakland now, so I haven’t been to a game in several years. I didn’t leave on bad terms or anything like that — I’ve just sort of drifted away from the game.
UW: When you watch a game on TV, do you instinctively pay extra-close attention to the details of the lettering and patches?
SS: Yeah, and it drives my wife nuts. During the playoffs, when the Yankees had that pitcher come in and his number was the wrong font, I noticed that right away.
UW: Any other interesting stories?
SS: When Rickey Henderson came back to the A’s in 1989, for one day only he was No. 22. He wanted 24, but Ron Hassey wore that. And of course Rickey wanted to have his way, which started this whole chain of events: He took 24, which meant Hassey changed to 27, which in turn meant we had to change Billy Beane to 11. So I had to change all of those jerseys, home and road. Good thing they only wore the white and the gray that year.
Another time the Orioles were in town. They had a night game, and then the Orioles brought up a new pitcher for the next game — and that was a day game. I lived about an hour from Oakland, so I had to stay up until two in the morning and wait for one of the clubbies to drive to my house with a jersey, which I then had to sew. Then I had to drive it to Oakland early the next morning before going to my regular job.
– – – – –
Since Steve said he hadn’t been in touch with Steve Vucinich in several years, I contacted Vuc, whose voice lit up as soon as I mentioned Steve Sale. Vucinich ended up adding a few more details to the Ricardo Rincón story. Here’s how he recalls it:
When the trade went down and Rincón walked over to our clubhouse, he was sort of in shock, so Art Howe told him, “Ah, take the night off.” So I told Steve [Sale], who’d been working on the new jersey, “Okay, we won’t need this jersey until tomorrow.” So he relaxed and he was gonna take the jersey home, because he had better equipment there. Then all of a sudden Billy Beane comes in and says, “Is Rincón down in the bullpen?” I said, “No, Art gave him the night off.” And Billy says, “Where is he? Find him, get him!” So we had to get his cell phone number from the Indians, who were across the hallway, and call him. Fortunately, Ricardo was just upstairs drinking beers in the stands. So they call him back down, and Steve goes back to rushing to finish the jersey, and we got it done. But he didn’t get into the game.
Finally, Steve Sale has acquired lots of jerseys, patches, and other memorabilia along the way. You can see some items from his collection, along with his comments on many of them, here.
Tigers changing their stripes?: Under Armour released a new commercial yesterday. Apparently it ran about a jillion times on ESPN, although I didn’t see it myself until about a dozen readers brought it to my attention. Take a look and see if you can spot what those readers spotted:
As I bet most of you saw, the pants in the jersey have a Northwestern stripe, instead of Auburn’s usual solid stripe. Several readers opined that this solved the one major problem they see in Auburn’s uniform, namely that the pants striping doesn’t match the helmet or sleeve striping.
This raises two questions:
1) Is this Under Armour’s way of letting us know that Auburn will have new pants striping for the game against Oregon on Monday night?
2) Regardless of what happens on Monday, is it really necessary for all the stripe patterns to match up? Is it even a good idea? When three elements are in such close physical proximity to each other, I think having them all repeat is a bit much. I know some people get all bent out of shape if sleeve stripes don’t match up with sock stripes and so on, but I think there’s a tendency to overthink these things. Personally, I don’t think it’s such a travesty that the current pants striping doesn’t match up with the sleeves or helmet.
Meats update: Not sure why I didn’t think of this sooner, but I’ve added a new item to the Meats product line: hoodies. Those are only available through Zazzle (same as the aprons and tote bags), but you can still order the T-shirts directly from me.
Membership update: As 2010 drew to a close, a bunch of you told me that your New Year’s resolution was to finally enroll in the Uni Watch Membership Program, so sign up already and join all the other proud members (including Chris Kite, whose card design, based on the Norwegian curling team’s pants, is shown at right). As always, you can see the full gallery of card designs here.
Contest reminder: In case you missed it yesterday, Grey Flannel Auctions will be giving away two gift certificates to the Uni Watch readers who come up with the best oddball-uni photos. Details here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: What do you get when you combine the Cavs’ CavFanatic jersey program with BFBS? This. I had originally been told (and had reported) that it would be worn last night, but it wasn’t, which seems like a kindness. Not sure when it’ll debut, but hey, no rush. … Awesome spot by David Teigland, who writes: “I figured you’d appreciate a jersey that spells out a cut of meat.” Indeed. That’s Josh Bone of Tennessee. … Potentially major news from Steve Presser, who received a promotional brochure from the Mets with an “NY”-inclusive logo — last seen in 1999 — on the front page. “Now, this may be the work of an intern who inadvertently pulled the wrong logo off of Google Images,” says Steve, “but I like to think this is a (very) small step in the direction of restoring some identity to this organization.” Me too. … Roberto Alomar wants to wear a Blue Jays cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. … TCU’s hoops team wore a really nice throwback design last night (with thanks to Kevin West). … Brian Wilson’s orange cleats have been added to the video game world. But they’re not his usual Nike cleats because, according to that article, “Sony doesn’t have the rights to use Nike cleats in the game” (as noted by Evan Schreiber). … As you may recall, last week the mighty Fleer Sticker Project produced a piece about the Orioles’ orange uniforms. One thing not originally mentioned in that post was that the uniforms were sold to the O’s by Brooks Robinson’s own sporting goods firm, which had one of the coolest tag designs ever. So I sent the tag design to FSP editor Jon Helf, and he’s responded by producing an excellent entry about Brooksie’s sporting goods operation. … Several interesting items in Jeff Barak’s latest hockey blog post, including a preseason-only NOB font and a jersey with pre-cut sleeve slits to facilitate easier fighting. For details, look here. … Here’s a doozy: a Stan Musial instructional LP! … Here’s just the thing for the Cubs fan who has everything. Actually, there are versions for just about every MLB team, in varying degrees of outlandishness (disturbing find by Eric Davis). … It’s a little hard to see in this photo, but A.J. Frey says the scoreboard at Devils games consistently misspells the term “First Intermission” as “Intermisison.” … Here are some great old uniform ads from Wilson, Rawlings, Spalding, Rawlings again, GoldSmith, and Sand Knit. … And here’s an unusual approach: an Aratex ad that tries to draw a connection between football and non-sports uniforms. That ad campaign had a baseball version, too. … Meanwhile, check out the illustration in this Reach ad. Were basketball players once required to keep one hand behind their back during tip-offs? … What is Duff McKagan wearing in this shot? Looks like a Seahawks/Falcons Franken-jersey, no? (Good spot by John Muir). … Interesting story + photos about Otto Graham playing basketball (with thanks to Joe Lombardo). … Very nice of MLB to be selling a Diamondbacks patch set with an upside-down sleeve patch (with thanks to Justin Kerr). … These aren’t exactly uniforms, but there’s a lot to like in these bowling outfits. … Somewhat less attractive: this slideshow of bowling politicians (both of these from my old zine pal Steve Mandich). … Pretty funny to see Alex Ovechkin tossing a football while on skates (with thanks to Bill Mitchell). … New logo design for Starbucks. … You know all those Nike hoops jerseys with the sublimated designs on the back? Bryan Molloy has taken to calling them sweatbacks, because they make it look like the players have perspired through their jerseys. Not a bad term, and it pairs nicely with the sweatbox. Shall I add it to the Uni Watch Glossary? … Sad day in Pittsburgh, as nearly century-old Honus Wagner Sporting Goods is closing (sorry, Kek). … New minor league baseball team coming to Texas: the Amarillo Sox. Pretty derivative uni set, although I like the use of the hanging socks for the double-el in “Amarillo” (with thanks to Mark Haslett).