Muhammad Ali – There Will Never Be Another Like Him

“If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest. In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men.”

Bob Dylan

DylanAliAs so often happens when I want to say something profound, the old Bard beats me to it. (It would surprise some to know that Dylan is a trained fighter who even ran a private boxing gym behind his Santa Monica coffee house for several years).

What can be said about Muhammad Ali that hasn’t already been said in the past week? I can only offer a personal perspective. Like Jackie Robinson, Ali was at the confluence of sports, race, politics, and a changing culture. But unlike Jackie, his triumphs and struggles were contemporaneous with my own life. It might be difficult for those who didn’t live through it to comprehend that the man who later became beloved as a world icon was reviled, rejected, and even hated by many. First, he refused to become the establishment’s version of what a black athlete should be: polite, grateful, deferential. Even before his name change he was a controversial figure: brash, boastful, supremely confident – almost no one gave him a chance of defeating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. And once he did, he almost immediately changed his name, his religion, and fell in with Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam. This was a time when Martin Luther King was still considered “controversial” for using non-violent methods to try to get the vote for his people, so figures like Malcolm and the Black Muslims were beyond exotic. They were considered real threats to the social order. Ali’s principled stand against serving in the Vietnam War not only brought him the acrimony of the white power structure, but also criticism from respected black figures like Jackie Robinson himself. Not only was he stripped of his title at the prime of his athletic life, but his passport was taken, and he could not earn a living anywhere in the world. But when he said his reasons for not going to Vietnam included the fact that no Vietnamese person had ever called him the N-word or raped his mother, it was pretty hard to argue with him. His willingness to give up everything and even go to jail for his principles gradually brought him respect even from those who disagreed with him. (The Supreme Court, of course, eventually overturned his conviction by unanimous vote).

Ali was not a saint. His mocking of Joe Frazier, a proud black athlete in his own right, and a man who quietly supported him and lent him money when Ali could not fight professionally, was a disgrace, and the lingering bitterness lasted until Frazier’s death. For a time Ali spouted a lot of separatist Nation Of Islam dogma about the evils of the white man, and the desirability of the separation of the races. He even turned his back on his great friend Malcolm X after Malcolm fell afoul of Elijah Muhammad and his cronies, something Ali always regretted. But gradually Ali’s faith took on a more universalist tone, and he embraced the world. His heart and his mind proved simply too big for narrow ideologies.

As a boxer, Ali was unorthodox. He was not the hardest-hitting heavyweight, nor the biggest, but he used leg motion (his famous “dancing”) to mesmerize his opponents, and more often than not they found themselves on the receiving end of lethal combinations coming from his lightning-fast hands. He fought backing up with his hands lowered – two boxing no-no’s, but this style was extremely effective for him. His bluster and clowning were, I believe, partly a tactic to hide the fact that he was a master tactician. The Foreman fight in which he introduced the “rope-a-dope” was pure genius. He let the younger, bigger man punch himself out and frustrate himself until Ali seized his moment in Round Eight and Foreman fell like a lumbering tree. In short, Ali was beautiful to watch. Even if you weren’t a boxing fan, you could be an Ali fan. When I took up boxing at the ripe old age of 49 I tried to emulate Ali’s style, never mind that I didn’t have the quickness, stamina, or chin. But I still practice that fast left jab followed by that sharp downward right hand.

I met him once, at an industry show. It was years after his retirement and his Parkinson’s disease had already taken hold. I thought about how cruel it was for a man with such gifts to be ridden with such a horrible disease. The hands that were once so quick now shook, and the mouth that once spewed poetry and wit like a verbal machine gun could not form more than the simplest words.

IMG_6112

Several years ago, I was thrilled when we were asked to make a jersey for Muhammad for the Civil Rights Game, that year played in Cincinnati. It remains one of my proudest moments.

The sport of boxing – which once rivaled baseball for popularity – is a shadow of its former self, particularly the heavyweight division, which was once populated by names like Louis, Marciano, Patterson, Liston, Frazier, Foreman, and Ali. We are lucky that every once in a while, people walk among us who do more than entertain us – they change us.

 

 

 

 

More Fun With Brooklyn Uniforms…

A customer recently sent me a 1955 Brooklyn Dodger Yearbook. These things are always fun to peruse, and sometimes add pieces to the uniform puzzle – or occasionally make the puzzle more confusing. Take this photo of pitcher Johnny Podres and manager Walter Alston, for example: For many years there has been a friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) debate about the correct “B” on the Brooklyn Dodger embroidered caps in the 1950s. At the time Jackie Robinson joined the club in 1947, the “B” was very rounded. At some point in the 1950s a narrower version was adopted. To add to the confusion, the designer of the Dodger hat in the movie “42” (not us!) opted to use a felt – rather than embroidered “B”, which produced a “fatter” emblem in the movie than what the Dodgers actually wore. Well, in this photo from the 1955 world championship season, both versions are shown.

PodresAlston 001.jpg

Branch Rickey was known as an innovator, and one of his legacies is the modern “farm” system, whereby the major league club would own their minor league affiliates outright, thereby having more control over player development (the other reason was that Rickey – a notorious cheapskate – got tired of purchasing the contracts of prospects from independent minor league teams). Rickey started developing the farm system concept as GM of the St. Louis Cardinals and brought it over to Brooklyn when he was hired by the Dodgers. All the minor league players would then train together at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, and it appears that there was a special uniform devised for minor league prospects, consisting of a plain jersey with a simple block “B” on the chest. This is something I had not seen previously.

BrooklynMinor 001.jpg

Lastly, Brooklyn appeared to experiment with a very early version of the mesh cap, which did not become common for baseball caps until the early 1970s. Likely worn only for spring training, Roy Campanella appears to be wearing one in a photograph in the Yearbook. Here’s Campy’s actual cap from that picture.

BklynMeshCap55

BklynMeshCap55-2

If anyone has any more insight into the Dodger mesh caps or the minor league prospect “B” uniforms, please leave a comment here. Thanks for reading!

The Jerseys of Jackie Robinson, Part 3

Robinson47

Robinson’s first Dodger home uniform.

In the two previous posts we discussed the uniforms worn by Jackie Robinson in his Negro league and minor league careers. From 1947 until his final season of 1956, his uniforms are of course synonymous with the uniforms of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although the primary elements of the  Dodger uniforms (particularly at home) have remained almost unchanged from Robinson’s first season up through today, there were several minor changes between 1947 and 1956. First, it must be said that I think it’s sad that Robinson never actually wore a uniform with “Brooklyn” on it. The last flannel road uniforms to say “Brooklyn” were worn in 1945, with the city name not being returned to the road shirts until 1958, when the Bums were on the opposite coast. Jackie started out his rookie season in a zipper-front raglan sleeved jersey with the familiar “Dodgers” in royal blue script emblazoned across the front. There was no trim on the jersey, and the script font was slightly more angular than the later version. Note that the lettering splits between the “d” and “g”. The split between “o” and “d” began in 1950, and has remained in force through today.

Dodgers50HomeJackie

Jackie Robinson’s 1950 Home Jersey

The road jerseys were button-front with narrow blue trim (called “soutache” in our trade).  In 1950 the letters moved to their familiar position on the jersey, and in 1951 a patch commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National League was added to the left sleeve (as it was on all NL clubs). The final big change to the Dodger uniforms was in 1952, when a large red number was added to the front of the jersey, below the lettering. It is interesting that the Dodgers chose a red number, because no red had been a Dodgers uniform since 1936. There are several theories about the origin of the red numbers, and most people assign credit to principal owner Walter O’Malley for the innovation. It is likely that the numbers were added with television in mind, a new phenomenon is sports which would have wide implications in uniform design. One story suggests that O’Malley added the numbers for the 1951 World Series, a series that of course the Dodgers would never play in due to unexpected events at the Polo Grounds that October. Whatever the reason, the red numbers were here to stay, though they wouldn’t be added to the road uniforms until the club moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Jackie52

Red numbers were added in 1952. Home jersey only.

DodgersRd1957

Last Brooklyn road jersey, note trim.

Let’s talk jackets. The Dodgers wore a plethora of jackets in different fabrics during the Robinson era. There were all-wool styles, wool with leather sleeves, and fur-lined “Skinner satin” jackets (a high quality rayon satin fabric), similar to the one we made for the Bert Shotten character in the film “42”.

BrooklynJacket55

1955 Skinner Satin jacket

DodgerJacket

All-wool jacket made by Butwin of Minnesota.

 

DodgersSpaldingJacket

Leather sleeve jacket with matching gold trim.

The Jerseys of Jackie Robinson, Part 2

Jackie_Robinson_no.30.jpg

 

Last week we took a look at the uniforms worn by Jackie Robinson during his brief time in the Negro leagues, as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League and the Kansas City Royals winter league team (not to be confused with the current MLB team of that name or the Montreal Royals, which was the Dodger affiliate Robinson played for before joining the Bums). It should be mentioned that Robinson in fact broke the organized baseball color barrier not in Brooklyn, but a year earlier in Montreal of the International League, and that he faced many of the same situations in cities like Baltimore and Syracuse that would become so familiar in his inaugural season with Brooklyn. (Fortunately, he was welcomed with open arms by Montreal’s rabid fans). Montreal was a farm team of Brooklyn, the farm system having been pioneered by Branch Rickey when he was general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, most minor league teams were independent entities who sold players to the highest big league bidder. Rickey, being a parsimonious type, wanted more control of minor league affiliates and player development, so came up with a system (universal today) wherein the major league club owned outright or at least controlled the fortunes of their minor league affiliates. This is relevant to our discussion here, because in 1946 the Dodgers brought together all their minor league prospects in Spring Training in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Here we must digress a bit and discuss the fad that several major league teams, most notably the Dodgers, indulged in for select night games: satin uniforms. Brooklyn first broke out the satin togs in 1944, and appear to have worn four different satin designs through the early 1950s, when they were discontinued. It appears that many of the satin 1944 uniforms made their way to Florida for use by minor league prospects. (For a great primer on the history of satin uniforms in baseball, go here). The Royals appear to have removed the Dodgers lettering and substituted “Royals” in cursive script (the lettering material was also satin, and the Royals matched the uniforms with a matching white satin cap). Robinson is first shown in such a uniform, with a #30 affixed to the back.

 

jackie-robinson-april-17-1946

Jackie Robinson, Spring Training 1946. Satin uniform.

Later on in Spring Training we see him in a regular season gray flannel Montreal road uniform with #9 on the back, the number he would use during the regular season, and this is the uniform Robinson wore when he broke in at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium on April 15th, 1946, creating a stir with his magnificent offensive performance. Curiously, the satin uniforms do not seem to have made an appearance during the regular season, the home uniform being a standard creme design with “Royals” in blue felt across the front, similar to what the parent Dodgers wore, but with added blue trim. One interesting fact is that two variations of the white felt “M” adorned the wool cap during the season.

JackieJC

Robinson crosses the plate on 4/18/46, the first official organized baseball game which included an African-American player.

 

 

DodgersSatin44

Circa 1944 Dodgers satin uniform. These were handed down to the Montreal farm club in 1946.

 

Jean-Pierre Roy and Hugh Casey

Royals’ regular season home flannel.

 

 

RoaylsSatinCap

1946 Montreal Royals Satin Cap

 

The Jerseys of Jackie Robinson, Part 1

With the upcoming Ken Burns Jackie Robinson film airing next week, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the jerseys worn by him before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This first post focuses on his brief period in the Negro leagues. It also illustrates some of the joys and challenges of our research process.

When Robinson was discharged from the Army in 1945, he was a college educated multi-sport star athlete, yet as an African-American his professional prospects were slim. He first returned to the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League, with whom he had played before the war. He then accepted a job as basketball coach at the historically black Sam Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University). It was while he as at Sam Huston that he received an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Although the Monarchs were the glamor team of black baseball, boasting Satchel Paige and other stars, the Negro leagues were still a dubious operation, and Robinson chafed at the gambling and lack of structure prevalent in Negro leagues baseball. Despite his misgivings, Robinson excelled during his time playing shortstop for  the Monarchs, batting .383 and playing in the East-West Game, black baseball’s annual all-star showcase in Chicago. Let’s take a look at the jerseys worn by Robinson in his brief time in the Negro leagues.

The Monarch uniforms of 1945 are very unusual for two reasons: First, there appears to have been a different color scheme worn at home and on the road. The home pinstripe uniforms were trimmed and lettered in the Monarchs’ usual red-and-navy combination. Jackie wore #5. We know this because fortunately for our purposes, the Monarch players wore a small number on the upper thigh of the pant on the home uniform. (I should point out here that researching Negro league player numbers is extremely difficult, because so few rosters exist with player numbers, and very few photographs show the back of the jersey). On the road uniform, however, the Monarchs substituted a navy-and-gold color scheme on the travel gray flannel. We only know this because an actual 1945 uniform came up for auction several years ago, otherwise we would have guessed from the black and white photos that the lettering scheme was the usual red-and-navy. We also located a 1945 roster from an away game (see below), and low and behold, Robinson is listed as #23, not #5. Now, we should point out that Jackie was not yet a star, and uniform numbers in those days did not have the significance they do today. It is quite possible that the clubhouse man simply handed out the uniforms and the numbers were more or less randomly assigned.

Robinson_paige_monarchs

Jackie Robinson in Monarchs home jersey, note #5 on pant.

After the regular season, Robinson also played for a Negro leagues California Winter League all-star team called the Kansas City Royals (no relation to the current world champs). If you were wondering how they played baseball in Kansas City in the winter, this league actually played all their games in Los Angeles. Robinson famously signed his contract with Brooklyn on October 23, 1945, so all eyes were on him when he played for the Royals at the end of the year. He did not disappoint, hitting .429 in the short season. He also endured a taste of what he would find when he made it to organized baseball. Although the Royals were a black squad, the league was integrated, and there were many doubters. Pitcher Bob Feller – who had faced Robinson before – remarked that Robinson didn’t have a chance to make it to the bigs, as “he couldn’t hit an inside pitch to save his life.” Fortunately for Feller, the American League Indians would not have to face Robinson when he finally came up in 1947.

KCRoyalsRobinson 001

Jackie Robinson’s 1946 Winter League Jersey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This roster for the visiting Kansas City Monarchs comes from the Philadelphia Tribune from June 23, 1945. Jackie Robinson is listed as shortstop, #23. Satchel Paige is #0, also different from his uniform number at home. The paper also carried an account of a Monarchs-New York Black Yankees game at Yankee Stadium in front of 22,000 fans.

KCroster1945 001

 

 

Flannels Of The Month

Returning to an old tradition here. At the end of nearly every month we add a new group of historic baseball jerseys to our website. At one time I used to do a blog post about one or more of them, then I got busy, or I got lazy, take your pick…Anyway, the point being we’d like to start doing that again. I like this month’s group, both for the graphic diversity (who doesn’t like a baseball shirt with a tree on it? Thank you 1956 Missoula Timberjacks), and the relevance to current events. With Cuba once again in the news, I thought it would be a nice time to introduce the 1956 Hershey Sports Club shirt to the world. And with Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson film coming up in April, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Jackie’s 1945 home Kansas City Monarchs jersey, which we will take up in more detail in a couple of weeks. One of the oddest jerseys I have seen was this zip-up Hawaii Islanders flannel from 1970. It is rare to see vertical stacked lettering like this. As flannels were almost universally abandoned after 1971 for the dreaded double knits, this was likely Hawaii’s last road flannel.

HAI70R2

The State of Hawaii patch adorns the left sleeve, as on previous Hawaii uniforms. The Islanders were a California Angels affiliate in this period, and the basic uniform style and trim owed a lot to the parent club. They may have even been earlier Angel uniforms handed down to the affiliate team – a common money-saving practice at that time. The Islanders were the pride of the Coast League in 1970, with a club that boasted a 98-48 record (best in the league). Chuck Tanner was manager and the team drew 467,000 fans into Honolulu’s old “Termite Palace”, pretty great when you consider that the next-best drawing club was Tucson, who only attracted 35% as many fans. In fact, the Islanders are considered one of the 100 best minor league teams in history. The Aloha State’s love affair with their professional baseball club ended by 1987, when the team finished last, and only 116,000 fans showed up to bear witness. The Islanders packed up and left for Colorado Springs the following season.

Check out the rest of this month’s selections here. And hopefully, this will become more of a habit!

Bobby Maduro and the Miami Amigos

Caracas, Maracaibo, Miami, Panama, San Juan, Santo Domingo. Collectively, these cities resonate in the world of Caribbean baseball in the way that a listing of “New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo” resonates in the world of high fashion. The only Caribbean baseball city clearly absent from that list is Havana.

Bobby Maduro was born in Havana in 1916. In 1954, he would become the owner and driving force behind the minor league Havana Sugar Kings, an International League club that played at the Havana ballpark now known as Estadio Latinoamericano, the largest and most famed park in Cuba. For Maduro, the Triple-A Sugar Kings seemed to be a stepping stone to his bigger dream, which was to bring a Major League club to Havana. But in 1960, after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and nationalized the economy, the wealthy Maduro was forced to emigrate to Miami––though, ironically, not before an exhibition game was played between his Sugar Kings and the “Barbudos” team led by Castro and fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos.

Maduro_-_Exterior_From_Right_V2T

Miami Stadium (later Bobby Maduro Stadium)

In the late 1970s, the Cold War and the resulting isolation of a Soviet-backed Cuba were in full effect when Maduro set out to a realize a new dream, creating an elite professional baseball league in the Caribbean to play in the summer, a key challenge and distinction from the usual Caribbean winter leagues. Working with people in Venezuela, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, Maduro found owners, stadiums, and coaches, laying the framework for what would become the Inter-American Baseball League.

Miami_Amigos_1979_Ballcap

The Miami Amigos played at Miami Stadium. Cap available here.

In 1979, the league was finally set to begin play between its founding clubs: the Caracas Metropolitanos, the Maracaibo Petroleros, the Panama Banqueros, the San Juan Boricuas, the Santo Domingo Tiburones, and the pillar of the league, its American entry, the Miami Amigos, who were managed by 4-time Major League All Star, Davey Johnson.

The league’s inaugural game was played on April 11, 1979, before 10,000 fans at Panama’s Estadio Arosemena, between the home Banqueros and the Miami Amigos, a game which the Banqueros won, 6-5, thanks to an unexpected two-out rally in the bottom of the 9th.

In June of that year, the San Juan and Panama clubs folded, a few weeks later the rest of the league’s clubs followed suit. Maduro’s dream had lasted for little more than three months.

Shortly after Maduro’s 1986 death, the city of Miami renamed the ballpark that had housed the Miami Amigos, among other local Minor League clubs, Bobby Maduro Stadium. The vote in favor was unanimous.

Guest blogger, Joe Swide