Growing up in New Jersey, Jerry Cohen was a big baseball fan, only not in the usual way. What fascinated him were uniform designs, not statistics or even the players who compiled them.
"My baseball card collection isn't worth anything because I only cared about the uniform photographs," Cohen says. "I didn't care about whether it was Mickey Mantle or some third-rate player."
Cohen's eccentricities as a fan have paid off. Today he is a leading authority on old uniforms and president of his small, thriving company, Ebbets Field Flannels, which deals in historic baseball apparel. The name calls up memories of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Dodgers, yet the business has been based in his adopted hometown of Seattle since its founding in 1987.
At this stage, the business is largely a mail-order catalog operation, which advertises in the New Yorker magazine as well as in specialty baseball publications.
Customers are adults willing to pay the price for specially crafted products true to the originals.
Ebbets Field Flannels doesn't sell youth sizes because the merchandise is too expensive. An authentic reproduction jersey begins at $150, caps sell for $28, and most of the jackets are $250 or more. Cohen says he's trying to find something affordable other than T-shirts he can offer young fans interested in carefully crafted items. Still, youngsters occasionally visit the Ebbets headquarters in a suitably old, industrial showroom or stop to browse in a retail store recently opened in downtown Seattle.
"I'm always gratified when kids come in [the showroom] rather than just wanting the latest [mass-manufactured] Shaquille O'Neal item," Cohen says.
"When I hear them say, 'Yeah, that's the Birmingham Black Barons or the Memphis Red Sox,' that makes me more hopeful about the next generations."
Cohen devotes a lot of time to "romancing," or efforts that reflect respect and admiration for baseball's rich history, especially as played beyond major league diamonds in the minor leagues and old Negro Leagues. This is achieved by creating catalogs that fuse product information with mini history lessons.
The latest catalog introduces minor-league slugging legend Joe Bauman, who once hit a record 72 home runs in a single season playing for the Roswell (N.M.) Rockets in the old Longhorn League. Cohen wanted to offer a reproduction of the jersey Bauman had worn in setting the record but couldn't find a picture of it anywhere.
The solution, Cohen concluded, was to track down Bauman, which he did. Bauman readily shared a scrapbook that included the desired images. "That was a fun one," Cohen says. "Anytime you get an opportunity to talk personally with people who were there, that always adds a human element."
Cohen has made numerous trips to Cooperstown, N.Y., to conduct extensive research at the National Baseball Library.
Steve Bird, an Ebbets employee who assists Cohen with the research, says that most historical baseball photos, even from the 1950s and '60s, are black and white. Determining colors often requires finding a player who wore a particular uniform.
Not long ago, Bird made such a "find" at a Pacific Coast League players' reunion. He was researching the1920 Seattle Indians, an old PCL minor-league club, and was introduced to a player from that team. "He could tell me the colors, a little about the cut of the uniforms, and some interesting historical background," Bird says.
Personal memories, he explains, are often the only source when dealing with defunct teams. "The team files might have gone into the attic of the last owner," Bird observes, "and when that person is gone the files are just a bunch of old papers, which get tossed out."
Cohen says the hardest thing to research are team jackets. "You very seldom see players pictured in their jacket, either in a team picture or an action shot," he explains. "I'd say one in 100 photos has anyone wearing a jacket, so when I see a good picture of a jacket I get really excited."
Cohen says that his interest in old uniforms was rekindled during the 1970s, when his aesthetic sense was "shocked and offended" by the body-hugging, double knits in vogue then. "Babe Ruth would have looked ridiculous in one of those knit pullover jerseys with the red and orange striping," he says. "The way the uniform hung was always the same from the late 1800s to about 1971 or so. Then there was a sudden departure. That got me going, made me really want one of those old baggy flannel shirts."
Because flannel is wool, Cohen says that some people assume it's hotter than modern fabrics. In his view, woven flannel breathes better than double-knits. "I don't think the double-knit has any advantage for comfort," he says. "The advantage it has is wear and tear, because it stretches." Part of the Ebbets Flannels business comes from supplying minor- and major-league teams with old-fashioned uniforms for turn-back-the-clock games.
These nostalgic promotions have become popular in recent years. "The minor leagues are much more progressive about this idea," Cohen says. "In the major leagues the equipment managers get nervous because the players make so much money that they can pretty much veto anything. For that reason, we've occasionally done the old-time uniforms in modern knit fabric, but custom dyed it to match the off-white."
Cohen is pleased that the major leagues have returned to classic styling if not to flannel. Buttons and belts have replaced buttonless pullovers and elastic waistbands. Asked to select his current favorite major-league uniform designs, Cohen replies, "The easiest thing would be to say the Dodgers and Yankees because, graphically, they're really the same as they were. After those two, it's tough to beat the Orioles. They've got a good blend of traditional colors and logo styles and modern fabrics."