One Hank Aaron Shirt, Please

Retro duds from teams of long ago are hitting home runs at the sales counter

When Scott Simon slides behind the microphone at the National Public Radio studio in Washington, he is sometimes dressed in baseball garb. But his warm-up jacket sports the logo of the Chicago American Giants, not the White Sox or the Cubs, and his jersey says Montreal Royals, not Montreal Expos. The minor-league Royals were Jackie Robinson's team before his momentous promotion to the majors in 1947. The American Giants of the old Negro Leagues played its last game in the 1950s.

For fans of baseball history, the ultimate cool is a jersey, cap, or jacket made to the exact specifications of a decades-old, or even century-old, original -- with heavy flannel, hand stitching, and felt patches. The best at reproducing ballpark styles of yesteryear are Cooperstown Ball Cap, Stall & Dean, and Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia, manufacturers that have carved out niches within niches in the quirky throwback biz.

Cooperstown Ball Cap Co.'s line is the most focused. The tiny company manufactures just baseball caps from a large shed on a country road near Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For $44, it duplicates virtually any cap worn by any team, including forgotten ones such as the 1904 Grand Forks (N.D.) Forkers and the 1912 Battle Creek (Mich.) Crickets. All told, the company makes more than 2,000 carefully researched wool models, each on display at its Web site, ballcap.com.

Stall & Dean sells baseball items (mostly jerseys and jackets of Negro League and minor-league teams), as well as offbeat throwbacks for football, basketball, hockey, and even the Roller Derby (stallanddean.com). Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. specializes in jerseys worn by star players in their star seasons. The company's top seller last year: a replica Atlanta Braves shirt worn by home-run king Hank Aaron back in the days when he toppled Babe Ruth's record in 1974 (mitchellandness.com).

The customers of the vintage sports gear companies are a varied lot: baseball history buffs, dealers who get players to autograph jerseys or caps and then sell them in sports memorabilia stores and online, teens making a fashion statement by copying what performers are wearing on music videos, and celebs yearning for a new look. William Arlt, a former vintage-clothing dealer who started Coopers-town Ball Cap in the mid-1980s, filled an order for about two dozen caps from comic George Carlin, who wanted team caps emblazoned with the initials G or C. Arlt also has supplied caps for movies, including a few hundred emblazoned with a red R in a white circle for the Rockford Peaches, the team portrayed in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. A worker for Arlt dropped notes into the leather bands of caps worn by Madonna, one of the stars, but, says Arlt, he never heard back.

Like Arlt, Stall & Dean President Jerry Cohen is a stickler for keeping it real. Cohen, who launched his company after becoming fascinated with Negro League history, refused to sell any merchandise that was not an exact replica. "I was selling wool jerseys, wool jackets, wool hats. That was it. You couldn't buy a T-shirt or anything else I considered 'made up,"' says Cohen, surrounded by a 1950 Mexico City Diablos Rojos baseball jacket ($400) and a red-and-white 1972 Soviet Union Olympic team hockey sweater ($225) at Stall & Dean's retail store in downtown Seattle. Eventually, Cohen relented, partly to woo customers scared away by his prices, such as $235 for a 1924 Atlantic City Bacharach Giants wool baseball jersey. "We added T-shirts [with logos of vintage teams] for people who couldn't afford the $300 jackets," Cohen says. A shirt for the Des Moines Undertakers costs $29.

SHELLING OUT

Demand for some of the replica jerseys is steady. Baseball shirts of the San Francisco Seals (Pacific Coast League) and New York Black Yankees (Negro Leagues) are popular, says Cohen. So is the colorful game jersey of the Havana Sugar Kings, a pre-Castro minor-league club.

Price is no obstacle for Peter Capolino's Mitchell & Ness customers. Their willingness to pay $250 for 1985-86 Boston Celtic jerseys and $350 for a 1977-78 replica Pittsburgh Penguin hockey shirt has pumped up revenues at Capolino's Philadelphia-based, family-owned business from a little over $4 million in 2001 to $35 million last year.

If items such as those don't max out the credit card, Capolino might also interest you in a 1944 St. Louis Browns warmup jacket, which goes for $575. Mitchell & Ness sold 76 of them last year. "A 75-year-old man will see the jacket and remember Bill Veeck owned the team and a midget once came to bat for them," says Capolino. "A 17-year-old will see a fall color fashion, brown, orange, and butterscotch, and think 'Way cool."' Either way, it's the next best thing to owning the original.

By Mark Hyman

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