More than any other major league sport, the history of baseball is intimately connected to graphic design. Think Yankee pinstripes, Dodger blue, and the Tigers’ Old English D. As a young boy growing up in 1960s Brooklyn, Jerry Cohen was well aware of that connection: While most of his friends were tearing open new packs of baseball cards in search of their favorite players, Cohen was focused on the uniforms, the logos, and the colors.
Fast forward to Seattle, 1987. Cohen is searching for an original wool baseball uniform to wear onstage while performing with his rock-and-roll band. When he finally realizes he’ll need to make it himself, he discovers a warehouse in Rockport, New York, with yards of baseball flannel dating back to the 1940s. Cohen made a few of his own jerseys, and before too long, people were asking to buy the shirts off his back. And Ebbets Field Flannels was born.
Three years later, Sports Illustrated highlighted the company, which quickly led to celebrity commissions from Spike Lee and David Letterman. Ebbets Field Flannels provided jerseys for 42 (the Jackie Robinson biopic), and outfitted Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and other Hall of Famers at the closing ceremonies for Yankee Stadium in 2008. A die-hard Mets fan who now oversees 22 employees, Cohen recently added football and hockey jerseys to EFF’s collection, but vintage minor-league and Negro-League uniforms will always form the heart of the lineup.
When you decide to create a “new” product, where do you start?
I’m not like most clothing designers who think, “What will people like next season?” I follow history. It’s my job to be a curator and accurately take a two-dimensional form—often a black and white photo—and turn it into a three-dimensional form, which is a living, breathing piece of clothing. If I have any talent, that’s what it is.
I’m a little cagey on the subject of research; I don’t like to tell people about my methods because I have a lot of competition, and I’m not going to make it easy for anyone else. But I’ve collected a lot of reference materials over the years, and sometimes it’s very serendipitous—stuff comes across my desk and I follow leads, like any good detective.
What’s the most difficult thing about recreating these uniforms?
In many ways, it’s harder to do a simple thing than a complicated thing. Today’s graphic designers go their entire lives using Photoshop or Illustrator and many of them don’t understand the elegance and simplicity [of doing things by hand]. If you look at baseball graphics or athletic uniforms of today, the general approach is more—more colors, more layers, more of everything crammed into a very small space. But back in 1915 or 1945, it was the opposite; design literally meant someone drawing with a pencil in a sporting goods store, then someone else rendering that illustration into dies that were used to cut felt lettering.
Describe your typical customer.
When we started, there were still plenty of old timers who went to the games of the San Francisco Seals, let’s say, so that was our original market. Five or six years ago, we discovered a new market—much younger people who are driven by the craftsmanship of the products as much as they are by the history and the teams.
Now, our audience is much more diverse—we’re working with ACE Hotel and other contemporary brands [including Jack White’s Third Man Records], who seem to like our vintage approach. With so much cynicism in marketing—particularly in sports-related products—everything is so “of the moment,” but when the moment changes, all that stuff really seems obsolete. We try to sell timelessness.
Designers are always trying to connect people to brands, but it’s hard to think of a brand more powerful than baseball—simple letters and numbers and the words “New York” seem to add up to a lot more. True?
That’s where the history comes in—putting the letters and the colors in the context of history, finding those touchstones, and even bringing a story to people that they may not be aware of. If you could describe the Ebbets approach, it’s not, “Here’s a Yankees hat like they wore in the World Series,” because that’s been done. From the beginning, back in 1988, it was, “Do you know about the Negro Leagues? Did you know this whole other universe existed and it was wonderful and rich, full of all these amazing characters?”
As historians, we’re always trying to find those little stories, so that every product we make has some emotional connection or historical resonance. It’s not always possible to discover all the details about some of the more obscure teams, but I always try to find one or two things, even if it’s just a couple of interesting statistics from an old class B minor-league team from the ’30s. Because you have to give people something to sink their teeth into, beyond a black hat with a white “A” on it.
In one interview, you point out how much you love design from the ’30s to the ’60s, and although you’ve considered creating uniforms from the ’80s or ’90s, you’re not in any hurry. What was it about that earlier era?
I’m sure there are people who would respond to something from the ’80s or ’90s just as powerfully as I respond to something from the ’50s. But to me, the ’80s is when designs became dispensable and transient, with polyester materials and logos changing constantly, so I tend to lose interest.
Right around the ’70s is when you see regional domestic manufacturers get phased out of athletic garments, and big guys like Nike take over and it becomes more about marketing opportunities. Then the computer programs kicked in and everyone had to have their own Pantone color; it wasn’t just red anymore. We’ve recently started making more vintage collegiate uniforms and we have to explain to the schools that back in the day, there were really just seven or eight colors that everyone used; they didn’t make felt out of Harvard’s burgundy Pantone—those specs just didn’t exist. And there’s something I like about that.
It’s like playing music: Today you can have 64 digital tracks on top of one another, and the ability to make any sound you want, or you could hand someone an acoustic guitar and say, “You have to do it with this.” For me, it’s more interesting to work with a limited set of tools.
Today, no new professional sports team would choose to do something as simple as what the Yankees still wear: a one-color interlocking monogram. And yet, you can’t measure the value of that Yankees logo because it has 70 or 80 years of history behind it and it hasn’t really changed. I don’t mean to sound like everything was better “back in the day,” because that’s not true, but there’s something about American style from 1935-1972 that, for my taste, represents something really special.
You’ve been at this 30 years. Have there been any special moments when you were struck by the impact that your company has had?
The kind of people who buy our stuff are the kind of people I’d like to hang out with—experts in other fields. Early on, Spike Lee adopted us, before the Sports Illustrated article even came out—you’d open a magazine and see him wearing one of our Negro League jerseys. I remember opening up a copy of the Sunday New York Times, and seeing documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney in the section where they ask notable people what they’re watching and listening to, and under “What I’m Wearing” it says “Ebbets Fields Flannels”; I had no idea we’d be in the New York Times when I woke up that morning. I’m a huge Beatles fan, and 20 years ago Michael Lindsay, the director of the Beatles documentary “Let it Be,” called us out of the blue and asked to be put on our mailing list—and we still still talk to him. I love it when that sort of thing happens.
And of course, working on uniforms for 42 was a great experience for me personally. Jackie Robinson is part of the DNA of our company: Growing up in Brooklyn, my dad would tell me stories of Jackie Robinson and from there I learned about the Negro Leagues; it’s a springboard to everything we do. So getting to work on that movie, taking my dad to the premier, and seeing our work up on the screen—that was really special.