Last spring the hip-hop superstar Jay-Z--in the video for his
single Girls Girls Girls--wore an exact replica of the maroon,
long-sleeved number 33 jersey that Sammy Baugh sported for the
Washington Redskins in 1947. Scant weeks later Baugh himself left
his ranch house in Rotan, Texas, for his once-a-month visit to
the mailbox, in which he discovered a five-figure royalty check
that must have appeared, to his 88-year-old eyes, to be a bank
error in his favor. "He's been thinking ever since," says Peter
Capolino, the 57-year-old Philadelphian who introduced, as it
were, Jay-Z to Slingin' Sammy, "What is going on?"
What is going on? In rap videos, endlessly rotating on the lazy
Susan of MTV, it seems that every artist and his entourage are
outfitted in "vintage" baseball, basketball, football and hockey
jerseys, most frequently in the double-knit, V-neck, pullover
baseball jerseys of the 1970s. Some of history's most hideous
artifacts--the Denver Nuggets' rainbow unis, the San Diego Padres'
counter-personnel-at-Burger-King shirts--have, in the last four
years, happily colorized the gray landscapes of urban America. "I
once asked Eric Clapton if he played a musical instrument," says
Capolino, who oversees the meticulous re-creation of these
uniforms, to the smallest detail, above his century-old Mitchell
& Ness sporting-goods store in Philly. "So you can imagine how
much I knew about the hip-hop world."
Today, the garrulous Capolino is known to his manifold hip-hop
friends as P-City, a nickname given him by the rapper P. Diddy,
who owns at least 60 Mitchell & Ness throwbacks, which retail
for roughly $275 apiece. Shaquille O'Neal frequently calls
P-City from his exercise bike to custom-order XXXXXXXXL jerseys
with nine extra inches of length. (O'Neal's first purchase: a
replica of Allen Iverson's rookie Sixers uniform.) Actress Jamie
Lee Curtis favors old Mike Schmidt Phillies unis, with the
burgundy stripe on the sleeves. Talk-show host Larry King bought
a striking green Brooklyn Dodgers jacket identical to the one
worn, in 1937, by Bums manager Burleigh Grimes. But the most
sought-after item of "urbanwear" in America is the Mitchell &
Ness 1980 Nolan Ryan Houston Astros gold, orange and red top,
which makes Joseph's amazing technicolor dreamcoat look sober by
"I was spurred by desperation," says Capolino, of the
pop-cultural explosion he inadvertently ignited in the
sporting-goods store that his family has owned for 50 years. "I
was competing with Modell's and the Sports Authority, and I had
nothing unique to offer." And so, when he found 12,000 yards of
wool flannel in a Philadelphia warehouse in 1986, Capolino began
to painstakingly re-create, from old photographs, classic
baseball uniforms for "older, white, conservative males who have
this thing [about baseball] that goes back to childhood."
One of the few stores that carried these uniforms was Distant
Replays in Atlanta, where the rap duo Outkast bought Mitchell &
Ness retro Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs uniforms, which they
wore in the photo appearing in the liner jacket of their platinum
1998 album, Aquemini. When that album exploded, so did the
uniform sales, and Capolino was instantly consorting with men
named P. Diddy, Fabulous, Big Boi, Fat Joe and Scarface, the last
soon to open a store in Houston that will feature M&N apparel.
"If we're going to be in business, I can't call you Scarface,"
Capolino told the rap star, who replied softly, "Oh. Call me
Since 1999 Capolino's company has grown from 11 employees, with
annual sales of $2.8 million, to 55 employees, with annual sales
of $25 million. Rap stars now fight to be the first to wear a new
old M&N uni, sometimes almost literally so. Angered that Bow Wow
was sold a 1984 white snap-front Chicago Bulls warmup top before
he was, Jay-Z tossed Reuben (Big Rube) Harley, M&N's 28-year-old
director of urban marketing, out of a video shoot.
Big Rube is P-City's liaison to the stars. He looked undaunted
last Friday showing Busta Rhymes around the cramped M&N store,
with its powder-blue Bob McAdoo Buffalo Braves uniforms and its
Bill Russell "half-zip" Boston Celtics warmup tops. "People walk
in, and it's like their childhood is in a whirlwind around 'em,"
says Big Rube, a delightful, nearly inaudible native of West
Philly. "It just brings a smile to your face."
Like everyone who works at M&N, Big Rube and P-City are
sports-history polymaths. Capolino's favorite uniform of all time
is his '44 St. Louis Cardinals Stan Musial replica, not least
because it brokered his meeting with Eulah Street--the woman, now
deceased, who for decades did the embroidering of the Cardinals'
birds-and-bat logo--a get-together that Capolino found every bit
as exciting as Diddy's South Beach New Year's Eve party.
Capolino fingers a red Syracuse Nationals warmup jacket--he can
tell you, instantly, that it's a heavyweight Oxford satin--and for
a moment it is 1955 again, and the Nats are champions of the
world. And the ghostly men who wore the uniforms all around him
are suddenly reanimated, as is Capolino himself. "His friends
sometimes tell me," Big Rube says of his boss, "'You've brought a
lot of life to this old white guy.'"
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Some of history's most hideous jerseys now happily colorize the
gray landscapes of urban America.