Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Uniform Graphics - Then and Now

I am not at all certain the world needs another blog, but here I am. As this is my first official entry, I thought it would be appropriate to touch on my views of baseball uniform graphics, as it has so much to do with who I am and why I started a company that does something as weird as make reproductions of obscure baseball jerseys. First, allow me to get something straight: I am not a misty-eyed nostalgist who believes everything was better in simpler times when players played "for the love of the game" (there was no such time), the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, and all was right with the world. If we are serious people we must acknowledge that these "simpler times" also consisted of open racism, as well as the near-indentured servitude of professional baseball players, among other sins. I believe the "the old days" are best appreciated in the full context of the times.

Having said that, I do believe some things in our little world of baseball were indeed better. Older ballparks were generally more intimate and well, human, in scale than even the fanciest of their modern cousins. The game was vastly better appreciated (and contemplated, as baseball is a contemplative game) without the deafening roar of rock music videos, digitized boat races, and other distractions that are almost apologies for the fact that the main event is merely a baseball game; and the nine-man game is infinitely better than the abomination that takes place an almost all leagues but the National. Lastly, baseball uniform graphics were better.

Why is someone charmed when they see an old Alfa Romeo Spider, or a 1960 Cadillac, while a Honda Civic - although a fine reliable automobile - fails to elicit that response? Why does a well-designed pre-war brick building look pleasing while a 1970s glass and steel tower look harsh and cold? The answer? There is a perceived timelessness and aesthetic charm to the Alfa and to that beautiful building. The designer was reaching for something beyond the style or fad of the moment.

Baseball uniforms are no different. At a time when professional sports teams hire expensive marketing firms to create logos and choose team colors, the elegant, simple, graphics and emblems of the past look better and better.

There are a few factors at work here. For one, no one draws anymore. If you think of the best of baseball uniform designs, say the Dodgers script that is still in use, the Yankee classic "NY", the wishbone "C" of the Reds hats, these were all drawn by human beings. Uniforms and logos designed on computer software look like they are designed on computer software. Second, the design firms who do most of the work these days tend to repeat the same type of design over and over again, a factor that is exaggerated by owners wanting what other team already have (sort of like with a lot of the new faux nostalgic ballparks, but that subject is for a future blog). Third, designing logos by committee is like doing anything by committee. Groupthink predominates, good ideas are watered down, and risks are not taken. The result is a plethora of mostly similar, bland, and utterly disposable graphics.

I will use just one example, and as a Mets fan I feel it is fair to mention my team. When the Mets started out, they adopted the colors of the recently-departed Dodgers (blue) and Giants (orange), and threw in pinstripes from the Yankees for good measure. The Mets cursive script at home was fresh but still traditional and the adopted 1930s Giants-style fancy-block "NEW YORK" on the road jersey was perfection. This was design at its best. Several years ago, perhaps feeling insecure, it was decided to add black to the team colors. Putting aside the fact that royal blue and black make for a nauseating combination, this design change all at once seemed forced ("hey, the kids will think we're hip!"), as well as an attempt to have it both ways ("we're traditional and hip!"). This approach has satisfied nobody. The traditional Met fans hate the black, and the hipsters are not fooled.

Ironically, the most recognizable (and I would say valuable, from a merchandise standpoint) emblem in baseball is of course the uniquely odd curved interlocking "NY" of the Yankees. If any designer at a firm proposed this logo today, it would never be accepted, at least without the addition of at least two more colors and probably not even then. It is too simple, to plain, to serendipitous to survive the design process. It is timeless, and it would be hard to put a value on that trademark. But it simply could not be created in today's sports design environment.

So, my appeal to baseball teams as well as graphic artists: Respect tradition, less is more, it's ok to be a little subtle, and for God's sake learn to draw.


  1. Nice article! The marketing people that control sports these days just don't get it.

  2. Hey as an Atlanta Braves fan, and you have no idea how much it pains me to say this to a Mets fan, I feel your pain. Here in Atlanta we have one of the classiest home unis in the majors: white, red "Braves" script, red and blue piping, and a tomahwak that hearkens back the the team's origins. Classic. For the road swap "Atlanta" for "Braves" and gray for white...done...

    The only problem is that in this modern age of multiple unis this setup isn't good enough anymore. So how does management screw up perfection (and coming from the town that Coca Cola built we do know something about this...)? They add not one but two awful alts: a red home alt that seems to go out of it's way to clash with the "official" team red and a blue road alt that the best thing I can think to say about it is that at least it isn't black...ugh...

    Hey Braves management, I get it you want to make some cash by selling alt jerseys. Fine, but how about something that actually honors the past instead of cheapening the future. Try using the 70's era home whites (you know the ones that the REAL home run king wore) for your home alts, and the powder blues that #3 made famous in the 80's as your road alts...I know that as a fan I'll, at the least, buy one of those cool lowercase "a" hats to wear to the Ted on Sundays...

    Don't like those try using the old Atlanta Crackers script on a white home Jersey with the old ABC pinstripes...Classy...Heck, the AAA Gwinnett Braves (located 20 minutes up 85 from Atlanta proper) just planted a Magnolia in the outfield of their new digs to honor their Cracker roots...Hey a fan can dream right...

  3. Great opening post Jerry! You hit the nail right on the head!

  4. Nice piece. Thanks for mentionning segregation and players enslavment, before I disagree with you on the rest. First, black and royal isn't necessarly ugly (if you want I can rid you of some jackets in this combo), didn't you say designers had to take some risks? __skipping the car discussion, too long__ When I look at a brick building, it is true I can feel the handywork, great, but they are useless, their height is limited and they waste too much energy. Greed and lazyness are part of human dna anyway, so why build it brick by brick, or hand sew it stitch by stitch, when you can have it done even better with proper, modern equipment, for less? For example, just compare throwback jerseys, actually the ones YOU make, with the originals : sometimes they look worse than DIY! Is that tradition?? Why nobody ever tried to DIY a sweater with triple shaded numbers, in 10 different fabrics? The NY logo is great only because it's the winniest logo in history. Every design is adapted to the manufacturing capabilities of its times (otherwise it's either art or science fiction), and if logo artwork look the same, it's not a matter of nowadays, it's rather because each period has its trends. Last, of course designers can draw, they just think plain monochrome letters make cheap lazy logos.

    Ok, now you of course have all my respect. I'm a huge fan of your company and if you want to hire me I take it all back.



  5. My response to J: Of course every period has its own style, and one is entitled to enjoy whichever styles one wants. Maybe J. prefers the styling of Hondas to Alfas, which is perfectly fine too. But I maintain that drawing is indeed a lost art (at least the ability to hand-draw elegant lettering), and that the commercialization of uniforms created by licensed product sales, combined with the ability to use so many different colors and fabrics has created designs that have not worn well to this critic's eye. (Just because one has more technology does not necessarily mean that technology is used to produce a more pleasing result. - AND when a new technology is invented, it is often overused or misused. I could name a lot of records from the 80s with synthesizers on them, for example. Very few have passed the test of time). And what's actually "cheap and lazy" is the repetitive and derivative nature of so many contemporary sports graphics, NOT 75 years or so of the design that proceeded the period since the 1980s. But this forum is supposed to promote discussion and debate, and that spirit, I thank you Jay for your comments...Jerry Cohen

  6. Jerry adds: Johan: First, my apologies for misnaming you in my response. It is very late and I have had a long day. I should be sleeping instead of typing. I was thinking about your brick buildings comment, because I was listening to a show about this just the other day. In actual fact, the great pre-war brick office buildings were built in very energy-efficient ways because central air conditioning didn't yet exist and air flow was a prime concern (as was natural light). It was the glass towers that were built later which cut down on windows (or eliminated them entirely) and were almost entirely reliant on artificial light and central heat and air-conditioning, but more importantly were seen as cold and inhuman compared to the graceful brick buildings that preceded them - at least to the people who had to work in them. Ok, enough with the architecture. One more comment: If you can find a single garment I have produced that combine royal blue and black you are indeed welcome to take it off my hands. I can assure you no such product has emerged from EFF. Cheers, and thanks again for taking the time to post...Jerry Cohen

  7. Finally, a place where I can air my views about modern uniforms. I have to say that for many years, the thing that irritated me the most was the flat polyester gray on modern road uniforms. I always loved the old "imperfect" look of the road wool uniforms, which helped to give the uniforms character. I think the adoption of the newer cool-flo uniforms has helped immensely in that regard. Sure, they are still a uniform (no pun intended) gray color top to bottom with no color imperfections, but at least they have some texture.
    My newest gripe is the overuse of the simple thin piping that seems to appear on the majority of teams. Frankly, it's incredibly boring. I much prefer thicker stripes - maybe not full-blown 1970s thickness, but something like the thickness on the Milwaukee Brewers uniforms. The Brewers have a pretty boring color scheme so it doesn't look so good on them, but imagine how nice stripes of those size would improve the uniforms for, say, the Athletics, the Blue Jays, the Rays, the Nationals, the Pirates, the Orioles, and the Padres. My other suggestions would be for the Brewers to go back to their original color scheme, for the Astros to return to their orange and blue color scheme (the late 60s, early 70s uniforms are classic), the Blue Jays to return to royal and light blue colors, the Athletics to go with a slightly lighter green (one that doesn't look so black) and also to add stripes, the Rockies to lose the black and/or emphasize the purple, the Padres to lost the "sand", and for the Marlins to put teal BACK into their uniforms (when there's only one team wearing teal it's OK).
    Also, to agree with Jerry, the combined blue and black on the Mets is hideous. Unfortunately, I just don't see the Mets getting rid of the black despite it being such an eyesore.

  8. I'm a graphic artist and sports fan. It's near impossible to explain what makes retro sports graphics so interesting to non sports types. Just ask my wife.
    My childhood room was ringed by pennants from the four major sports. I was just thinking the other day how the uniforms right now are pretty darn good. We got past the "futuristic" look (Astros, Phillies, etc in the 80s) and most teams looked backwards for inspiration. Love the White Sox sticking with the black and white and the unique logo. The Mets black jersey is a joke. But I love the drop shadow on the home and road jerseys; and the orange and blue look great together. Even the Astros went to a more traditional look and hired a Lawrence, KS designer to develop their latest logo. Unfortunately, the capitalists force the alternate jerseys on us. Over time, they'll become tired and maybe fade away.
    Keep up the great work Jerry.

  9. Great post, Jerry. As both a designer and baseball fan, I find Ebbets Field Flannels and your blog right up my alley. Thanks. I'll be following.

  10. Some very good comments here, thanks everyone. If you really want to get down with the sports uniform freaks (freakier than even me), check out Paul Lukas' Uniwatchblog.com, link above...JC

  11. Bravo, Jerry! Mets ticket stubs from the 60s featured a cartoon of Mr. Met shedding a little tear (you know, it was a rain check and he was crying because the game was washed out). I think now he was anticipating those dreadful black uniforms. The hats, in particular, remind me of the baseball cards the year after the As moved from Kansas City to Oakland. Rather than airbursh in a new logo, Topps artists looked like they colored over the cap with a black magic marker.

    And the guy who created Mr. Met-he knew how to draw!

  12. Daniel: I loved those ticket stubs with Mr. Met! God, I hadn't thought of that in years. Check our new Tidewater Tides T-Shirt with Mr. Met adapted for the minor league team. Does anyone know who created Mr. Met? Let me know if you do. Thanks.

  13. A quick Internet search reveals that Mr. Met was the first ambulatory baseball mascot, also the first to be honored with a bobblehead. But it does not answer the question as to who created the big ol' baseball headed guy.

    He made his debut on the cover of the Mets 1963 yearbook. Subsequent covers were illustrated by the great sports cartoonist Willard Mullin, if that's any hint.

  14. As a longtime fan of EFF, I agree that the older, simpler designs are more appealing. I am a Seattle Mariners fan, and I actually do like their uniforms (even with a non-traditional teal), but they still can't hold a candle to the PCL uniforms of the 30's, 40's, and 50's. I went to the Mariners/A's game recently where both teams wore Rainiers/Oaks uniforms from 1939--it was unbelievable how much BETTER they all looked--specially since nobody had their pants all the way down to their shoes. How anybody can run the bases with pants like that and not trip is beyond me.

    As an aside, I don't mind the big screen hat trick and sailboat/hydroplane races. I think they are fun diversions between innings. However, the retro M's/A's game had a really clever take on those--someone behind the outfield fence held up large plywood hats, and for the boat race large plywood sailboats, just like they'd have had to do in 1939 if they were to do such a thing. It was a really fun game.