In early 1987 Jerry Cohen, who at the time was a struggling rock musician in Seattle, received a big disappointment in the mail. "I'd sent for what was advertised as a New York Giants flannel jersey," says Cohen, 32. "It was all wrong. It said GIANTS in plain block letters [without orange trim], had a generic, wide piping down the front, no number on the back, and was cotton, not wool!"
Determined to have an exact replica and assuming he would have to make it himself, Cohen started researching old uniforms. "As a kid, I had always followed baseball uniform styles," says Cohen, who was born in Brooklyn the year after the Dodgers left New York City for Los Angeles, and whose father worked as a division head for a large clothing manufacturer in Manhattan's garment industry. "Other kids would collect baseball cards for the players. I would get them to see what teams had changed their uniforms."
By that summer his research had become an obsession, and Cohen found himself devoting more time to the uniform project than to his job at a music production company. Office hours were spent phoning athletic-uniform manufacturers (in an effort to locate unused woolen uniform flannel, which hadn't been made in 20 years) and textile mills (to find somebody who would be willing to weave the cloth). Six months later, in early '88, Cohen founded Ebbets Field Flannels and began manufacturing replicas of jerseys. The first one the company offered was the shirt of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the American League team that became the Milwaukee Brewers after one season.
The jersey was a hit, but Major League Baseball soon informed Cohen that, without a licensing agreement, Ebbets Field Flannels was prohibited from selling any jersey with an MLB logo, even if the shirt had been worn by a team that no longer existed. The fledgling firm couldn't afford $20,000 for a national license, and MLB wouldn't agree to a limited, regional deal.
The MLB ban was a turning point in the fortunes of Ebbets Field Flannels. "It was a blessing in disguise," says Cohen, "because it led us to the minor leagues. If you talk to baseball fans on the West Coast, you'll find a tremendous amount of loyalty to the old pre-'58 Pacific Coast League, which was considered by many to be a major league. There are similar pockets of fans all over the country, people who grew up with minor league ball before television and expansion, and they have very strong loyalties to those teams. There are people in Atlanta today who have more interest in the Crackers of the old Southern Association than in the Braves."
From that point on, Ebbets Field Flannels had a niche in the sports-apparel market. With a warehouse on Seattle's waterfront, the company now offers five dozen jerseys (priced from $100 to $160), a like number of caps ($20 to $40) and a dozen warmup jackets ($175 to $250) representing teams from the minor leagues as well as from the old Negro leagues and the short-lived Federal League of 1914-15.
The Ebbets Field Flannels brain trust consists of Cohen and his wife, Lisa. They see to it that a uniform's specifications match those of the original, but they contract out the labor (weaving, cutting and lettering) to half a dozen other companies. Last year the firm grossed $120,000 and netted $16,000. Cohen expects both figures to triple this year.
All replicas made by Ebbets Field Flannels are meticulously researched. Cohen has an extensive collection of photographs, and he makes periodic pilgrimages to the Hall of Fame to pore over source material. Often, however, the process of adding a new jersey to the catalog involves even more painstaking detective work. "The Negro leagues and Federal League are difficult, because hardly any original garments exist and all the photos are black and white," says Cohen. "You get very good at looking at shades of gray in photos."
Cohen's relationship with Major League Baseball is cordial but restrained. "Not too long ago we were at a trade show and met their licensing people, who seemed impressed with what we're doing," he says. "But I'm not really excited about joining them, because they spell out exactly how you have to do things, and then it's almost as if you're not your own boss. Besides, we have our own niche."
If you've always wanted to own a jersey worn by the 1932 Middle Atlantic League-champion Charleston Senators—or that of an equally obscure team—chances are you can get it. For a catalog, write Ebbets Field Flannels, 117 W. Denny Way, Suite 214, Seattle, Wash., 98119, or telephone 206-284-4473.
Cohen can provide customers with jerseys of many old or obscure minor league teams.
Jay Feldman lives in Davis, Calif., and writes often for "Sports Illustrated."