By Mike Heffner
ithin the circle of collectors of game used equipment, one item that is very sacred is the jersey. It is a symbol of the player's team, usually consisting of the team nickname or city on the front and the player's number and sometimes name on the back. They are usually colorful and sometimes have added features such as patches or numbers on the sleeves or fronts. The jersey is the closest thing to a player's body, thus making it the most desirable part of a game day ensemble.
Jerseys are amongst the most popular of all sports collectibles. They look great in displays and can be the source of unlimited enjoyment and pursuit by avid collectors. Unfortunately, the game used jersey market is plagued by fakes and altered examples being sold as originals. I wish that there was an easy way to authenticate jerseys but there is not. Each one is a separate case. Authenticating a jersey is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. First you try to look at the big picture to develop a visual picture of what the end result should be. Then, you look at the individual pieces and put them together. When looking at a jersey, give it a quick glance and make note of anything that pops out at you or appears to be out of place. Go back and then look at the details. Try to keep an open mind as nothing is written in stone within the area of jersey authentication.
Most styles of sport jerseys date back to the origins of the games from which they evolved, whether it is baseball, hockey, football, basketball, etc. There have been so many different styles and manufacturers that volumes could be written on these subjects. At some time in a future column, I will try to expand on some of the variations that exist.
Baseball jerseys are the most widely collected of all the sports. For this reason, I will refer mainly to baseball jerseys while pointing out some of the things to look for when authenticating and purchasing. Most of these points apply to all sports jerseys. Here are a few helpful hints:
1) It may be very obvious but I have seen collectors overlook jersey size many times. The larger the player, the larger the jersey size should be. Most jerseys, from all sports, should have size tags in them, regardless of the manufacturer. There are a few exceptions, especially when dealing with pre 1930 shirts. Sometimes size tags do fall out from repeated use and wear but this is a rare occurrence. Even without a size tag, the approximate size can be determined by comparison to other jerseys or by checking the fit on ones own torso. Remember that some players do have personal preferences when it comes to jersey size. Some like tight fitting shirts and some like a loose fit. During the era of flannel jerseys, many players wore their uniforms in more of a baggy style than today. In general, the size should be consistent with the build of the player. Frank Howard, at 6'7" and 255 pounds wore a size 48 to 50 jersey, and Ozzie Smith at 5'11" and 150 pounds wore a size 38 to 40 jersey. If you see a Hondo jersey with a size 42 tag, you better think twice before buying it. Look again if you see an Ozzie jersey with a size 46 tag. Common sense applies here.
2) Some players require special size and other alterations to their shirts. Some of these are done at the manufacturer's factory and others are done in the clubhouse. On newer knit jerseys, you will usually find these customizations noted on tags sewn to the shirts. Examples are extra body length, and negative sleeve length. This is not to say that all jerseys with customizations will be noted as such. Sometime the customizations exist but the tags were never added. On the other hand, if the extra tags are present, the jersey must have the customizations as noted on the tags. I have viewed a number of knit jerseys of current star players with the extra tags and no extra length or customizations. These look to be store bought jerseys with major league tagging added. It is easy to check for extra length, just hold the shirt up to another one by the same manufacturer and of the same size. It is preferable to make the comparison with the jersey of a common player. Some players make their own customizations such as slitting the sleeves or cutting the tails. Babe Ruth was known to have a drawstring added to some of his jerseys. Because of his girth, his jersey would have a tendency to become untucked from his pants. The drawstring enabled him to secure his jersey to his pants or waist.
3) Closely inspect jerseys for use and alterations. Look for use on the inside as well as the outside of the jersey. It is sometimes helpful to turn a jersey inside out to see wear or restoration. There is a difference between use and wear. Use is created by being on a player's back and worn during a sporting event. Wear occurs when a jersey is laundered or handled. Evidence of use could be pilling around the belt line from being tucked in and rubbing on a player's pants. Fraying of the piping around the cuffs of the sleeves might show evidence of wear. In regards to frauds, wear is much easier to fabricate than use. An old trick used by some unscrupulous jersey counterfeiters is to use sandpaper or other abrasive materials on the letters and numbers of a jersey to make them look "used." Keep an eye out for these blatant abrasions. It is very rare to find scuffing on any legitimate, used baseball jerseys. Hold it up to the light in order to detect any stitch marks that would indicate the removal of a number or letter. Pay close attention to the areas around the letters and the numbers, as these are the areas where a change would have been made. Sometimes, number changes were legitimate and made by the team. In most instances, a number or team name change was the result of a jersey being sent to the minor leagues. This type of change usually decreases the value of a jersey by about 50%. Counterfeiters have been known to take jerseys of common players and change the numbers to make them look like they were worn by a superstar. In this case, the jerseys are practically worthless. Loose stitching on letters and numbers is usually a good sign and occurs from repeated use and laundering. Make sure that the use and wear are even throughout the jersey.
4) Look for consistency. In most cases, but not all, the numbers and letters on a jersey should have been applied with the same material at the same time. Thus, they should show consistent wear and be faded evenly. One of the first things that I do when looking at a jersey is to compare the applied materials on the front to those on the back. Just fold the jersey over to make the comparison. If the colors, wear, or stitching are drastically different, there could be a problem. There are exceptions to this rule as sometimes the manufacturer did the lettering and the team did the numbering. It is also possible that a jersey could be used to the extent where the numbers and/or letters could have come loose and need to be replaced or resewn. This would create the appearance of inconsistency. This is an exception and did not occur that often unless the jersey was sent to the minor leagues after its use by the big league club. Pay special attention to the thread, which was used to attach the letters and numbers. It should also show wear and sometimes fading. This is somewhat more difficult to detect but is easier with the use of a magnifying glass. On a well-worn jersey, the ends of the threads should be frayed or almost pointed when viewed under magnification. The ends should not look freshly cut or crisp.
5) Use all of your senses. Sometimes sight alone is not sufficient to authenticate a jersey. Many times, touch can be a helpful sense when determining whether a jersey is original or not. Most authentic, game worn jerseys, especially knits have a "special" feel to them. Check for softness and suppleness. Pay special attention to the cuffs on the sleeves and the letters and numbers. If the jersey or applied materials are overly stiff, it is most likely a jersey that either has very little use or is a fabrication. If it is a button-down model, undo all the buttons. The buttons should slide in and out of the buttonholes with fair ease. If they are very tight, odds are that the jersey was used very little. This may sound wacky, but it is sometimes helpful to smell a jersey. Many newer jerseys are removed from the locker rooms without being laundered. It is not a bad thing if a modern jersey has a certain stench to it. I remember picking up the 1993 Baseball All Star Game jerseys right after the game. They had not been laundered and after a day of being in plastic garbage bags, they could be smelled several offices away. With older flannel jerseys, a smell of mothballs or musk is sometimes a good indicator that the jersey has been stored for many years. A fresh smell of laundry detergent emanating from an old flannel would indicate recent laundering and could be cause for concern. Sometimes when a jersey is restored or altered, the person making the changes or additions will soak a jersey over a period of time to lessen the appearance of prior stitch marks or discoloration.
6) If possible, compare the jersey in question with other known, authentic samples and photos. Sometimes it is possible to photo-match a jersey. This is accomplished by finding photos of the player in uniform and making a comparison to the jersey in hand. It is much less time consuming when the exact year of the jersey is known. It is easier to do with football and hockey shirts as these will sometimes exhibit repairs and or "burn" marks. These marks are usually like fingerprints, no two are identical or in the same spot. Even with baseball jerseys, it is possible to photo-match examples. This is most easily done with jerseys that have pinstripes. Follow each stripe, noting the beginning and the end. Pay special attention to the exact points where specific stripes intersect numbers, letters, and buttons on the jersey. Buttons are also helpful when matching a jersey to a picture of a player wearing it. Pay specific attention to the distance between the buttons and the proximity to the logo or team name on the front. If you can find a picture of a player wearing the exact jersey in question, the value of the jersey may be increased from 25 to 100 percent. Just because a photo of the player wearing the jersey cannot be found does not discount the authenticity. Unlike the old days when players only wore a couple of jerseys a year, some players are now using dozens and photos of them wearing specific jerseys may not exist. On the other hand, if a photo is found of a player wearing the exact jersey in question, the proof is 100% definitive.
I could go on and on about collecting and authenticating jerseys but I will save that for a later date. One of the most important points that I can make is to buy from reputable sources and research as much as you can when making a purchase. Game used jerseys are a great collectible that have increased in value over the years. Do not let fraud deter you from collecting game worn shirts. Treat it as a challenge and try to give yourself an education of the market as you go along. The rewards are very satisfying. I know as I have my jerseys proudly displayed on mannequins throughout my collection.
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