The Power of the Uniform
Combining art and science, new tome offers up photos, anecdotes, and valuable collecting information on game-worn uniforms
Have you ever run into your longtime doctor outside of the office without his or her white lab coat on and failed to recognize them for moment or two? It can be a little disconcerting, like seeing a well-known police officer in a T-shirt and jeans or even the checker at your local grocery store out at a community event in fancy clothing.
For those whose professions call for a distinct manner of dress or a uniform, it can be a bit hard to imagine them wearing something other than what we've become accustomed to seeing them wear.
This phenomenon is, perhaps, the most off-putting and emotional for sports fans. Just show a die-hard Joe Namath fan a photo of "Broadway Joe" in a Los Angeles Rams uniform and they will cringe. It's like seeing Yogi Berra wearing a New York Mets cap, Harmon Killebrew suited up as a Kansas City Royal, Johnny Unitas throwing his final professional pass as a San Diego Charger, Joe Montana looking for a downfield receiver from behind the facemask of a Kansas City Chiefs helmet, or Michael Jordan running up the hardwood in a Washington Wizards jersey. We become so used to seeing players, from every sport, in a certain uniform that when it changes, it's almost as if our equilibrium has been thrown off.
And thus, is the power of the uniform.
For anyone who has ever been a devout fan of a professional athlete, the uniform they wear becomes a symbol of pride, loyalty, and allegiance. And as time goes by, and players retire and slip the surly bonds of Earth, the uniforms they once wore become emotional connections to both them and the past, as well as items of great historical significance.
Two men who are acutely aware of this fact are collector Stephen Wong and the nation's foremost authenticator of vintage Major League Baseball uniforms, Dave Grob, who have co-authored Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game's Greatest Heroes and Moments (Smithsonian Books, 2016), a beautifully-illustrated coffee-table book that examines some of the most coveted uniforms worn by major league players during the 20th century.
A beautifully produced book, it includes a treasure trove of stories about legendary players and their uniforms, including Babe Ruth's road jersey from 1920, his first season with the New York Yankees; the sole surviving uniform from the infamous 1919 World Series; Joe DiMaggio's rookie uniform from 1936; the Boston Red Sox road uniform Ted Williams wore during his epic 1941 season; Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers home jersey from the 1952 season; Bill Mazeroski's Pittsburgh Pirates home uniform worn to hit the game-winning home run in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, and many others.
Each of the book's 71 entries showcases uniforms, jackets, and hats, as well as other treasured baseball collectibles in stunning photography coupled with informative, and sometimes poignant, narrative. It also features a first-of-its-kind illustrated compendium with elaborate definitions of relevant terms that every game-worn or game-used collector needs to know and understand.
Wong, a baseball historian and lifelong collector of rare baseball artifacts, also authored Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections (Smithsonian Books, 2005). He has served as an advisor to a number of the world's top sports collectors and has provided his expertise to numerous baseball exhibitions, including those presented by the Chicago Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, and the Skirball Cultural Center.
A graduate of Stanford Law School, Wong is currently a managing director and chairman of Hong Kong investment banking at Goldman Sachs. Born in Montreal in 1967, Wong's family moved to San Francisco when he was a young boy. It was there that his love of baseball began.
"I joined the Los Altos Little League where I became an avid second baseman," says Wong. "I was a big Giants fan, a passionate baseball card collector, and I loved attending baseball games at Candlestick Park."
Sports Market Report recently spoke with Wong via phone from his office in Hong Kong. Our conversation began by asking him about the impetus for doing this new book.
Stephen Wong (SW): Since releasing my last book [in 2005], I have become even more intrigued with game-worn uniforms. That fascination began in the early 1990s, and over the years, as I picked up various game-worn items to add to my collection, I became aware of the fact that there has been either no, or very little, research done on this segment of sports collecting.
There is a great book entitled Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century: The Official Major League Baseball Guide[Sterling Pub. Co, 1991] written by Marc Okkonen. That book offered some valuable, organized information and provided some historical anecdotes about game-worn uniforms. But there was still this huge void in what, arguably, is one of the most celebrated segments of the sports collecting hobby.
Other than super, high-end graded baseball cards and game-used bats, game-worn uniforms are the most coveted and prized items in the hobby. These uniforms, like ones worn by Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, have sold for astronomical sums of money. They are rare, coveted, and cherished items, and yet no substantive work had been done on them since Okkonen released his book back in 1991. I really felt that this void - the need for information on these items - needed to be filled.
Sports Market Report (SMR): So what was the spark that got the process started?
SW: I know exactly when it was - it was at the 2013 National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago. I was talking to Dave Grob, who is one of the world's leading authenticators of game-worn uniforms. We were discussing the need for a book that would combine the art and science of these treasures - one that would also provide valuable information that is simply not available anywhere else. I am a longtime collector of game-worn uniforms and he is the most knowledgeable guy on the planet when it comes to these items, so we figured there was no one better than the two of us to partner up and create this book.
SMR: When you decided to do it, what was the initial outline - the game plan, if you will - for what you wanted the book to accomplish?
SW: We wanted it to be the definitive, most comprehensive, and most enjoyable work on game-worn uniforms to date. We set out to tell the story of these gorgeous artifacts in a way that would provide historical context and visual pleasure - beautiful photography and anecdotes that tell the stories of the uniforms, the players who wore them, their background, and why a particular uniform is important.
To me, the essays and the photos are the art of the book. The science of the book came from Dave, in the compendium, which is a visual and textual reference of every single term that would relate to game-worn uniforms. He provides an explanation of textiles, sleeve patches, different types of zippers and buttons, laundry tags, all those things he has studied and become an expert on. This will be an amazing resource for collectors, from beginners to those who already have substantial collections. It will give them a very good understanding of all the important parts of a uniform's construction through the different eras.
This may sound crazy, but one of the inspirations for this book was Leonardo da Vinci. He was a Renaissance man - he was an inventor, artist, musician, historian, architect, scientist, a student of mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, cartography, and the list just goes on and on. He would maintain voluminous notebooks wherein he would draw and write down his observations, thoughts, and questions. He once said: "To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." That philosophy - da Vinci's way of connecting art and science - was a guiding and inspirational concept behind this book.
SMR: Are the uniforms featured in the book all a part of your personal collection?
SW: Some are mine and some are from other collections. The items featured in the book are mostly from the collections of Thomas Tull, the Bill DeWitt Family, the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, Gary Cypres, Dan Scheinman, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as well as a few others including mine and Dave's.
SMR: Just as within every genre of collecting, there are many nuances when it comes to game-worn uniforms. Can you talk about some of those nuances?
SW: There are many that we cover in the book: condition, era, player, manufacturing materials, the game or series the uniforms were worn in, the team, and, of course, those that rise to the level of great historical significance.
Obviously, a uniform worn by someone like Bobby Thompson is one of great magnitude when it comes to its desirability with collectors. Any uniform he wore will have collectible value. But when you talk about the uniform he wore when he hit the shot heard 'round the world to win the 1951 National League pennant, you are talking about a vastly different item. When it relates to something like that, a uniform becomes a premier historical artifact. Same with the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform Bill Mazeroski wore when he hit the famous home run in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series.
These are extremely significant uniforms that are directly tied to a landmark moment in baseball history. Any Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig game-worn uniform is going to be highly desirable and valuable, but the one Ruth wore when he hit the called shot home run in Game Three of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field or the one Gehrig wore when he made his famous "Luckiest Man" farewell speech on July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, these are the pinnacle of the game-worn uniform hobby. Those exceedingly historical uniforms - especially those worn by the greats of the game - that are tied to a specific and significant event are the most highly coveted and cherished.
SMR: There was a time, back before game-worn uniforms were recognized for their collectible value, when uniforms would simply get discarded after they got worn out or tattered by use. Today, players sometimes wear several different jerseys in one game alone, and they are then marketed and sold as collectibles by the teams. How has that dynamic changed the hobby?
SW: Back in the dead-ball era [the period between 1900 and 1920] and even on through into the 1960s, most major league ball players were only issued two home uniforms and two road uniforms for the entire season. Now, there were certain exceptions to that, depending on the player, so it wasn't a steadfast rule by any means. But the number of uniforms a player would receive was far less than what players received in the 1990s and on through to today.
Of course, as you say, today, major league teams themselves issue multiple uniforms to players for the explicit purpose of then making them available as a collectible. That's great. I mean, come on, what baseball fan wouldn't love to have a jersey actually worn by Derek Jeter in a game? But let's be real about it. Because of what the teams now do, there are enough Jeter game-worn uniforms in existence that anyone who really wants one, and can afford it, can easily get one. It just comes down to price.
So, the extreme scarcity has been removed when it comes to most modern-day game-worn uniforms. But, if you go back - relatively or historically speaking - not that long ago, to the days of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Roy Campanella, you are lucky to have any of their uniforms exist in any condition.
SMR: Anyone who loves baseball will love your magnificent book and the beautiful photos taken by Francesco Sapienza, which themselves are works of art worth framing. But, when it comes to collecting game-used uniforms, is this genre of the sports collecting hobby one that is reserved for only those with exceptionally deep pockets?
SW: No, not if you are dealing with more modern uniforms, which, don't get me wrong, are very desirable and make for great collections. Our book doesn't address that aspect of the hobby, but as with every genre of collecting, there is no right or wrong way to collect. Each collection can be unique, which is what makes the hobby so great.
We are certainly not preaching that high-end uniforms worn by legendry Hall of Famers are the only uniforms collectors should care about. For one thing, that segment of the hobby is pretty much reserved for those who have hefty financial resources. But, that aside, for the person who has budgeted $500 to a couple of thousand dollars to spend per year, they can put together great collections of game-worn items. True, they're not going to get the type of pieces we feature in our book, but there are uniforms from the 1980s to today that are very affordable. They may not be as rare as ones from the earlier years, but that doesn't make them any less significant to a collector who is able to own a uniform worn by a player they admire.
So, to more succinctly answer your question: there is a place in the hobby for those without deep pockets. And as for the premier items, you just must remember that we are talking about things that are in the top one percent of all sports collectibles - and in some cases, they are even things that transcend sports and are significant from an American culture aspect.
When you are talking about a Babe Ruth game-worn uniform, you are talking in terms of huge monetary value. And that goes back to one of the reasons Dave and I wanted to do this book. It just baffled us that, for these highly collectible items, nothing had been written since 1991. It was just ludicrous to us because it is such an important segment of the sports collecting hobby.
I love the grading system that PSA has established. I have deep respect for what PSA has done, and continues to do, for the hobby. It has brought about a discipline and a structure that allows collectors to enjoy the hobby in a systematic and organized fashion. When you are talking assurance, authenticity, proper valuing, and building a community, that is what PSA has done, and continues to do, which is a beautiful thing.
We can improve the industry for jerseys by doing what PSA has done for so many different types of collectibles. This book can help provide essential information that is lacking in the game-worn jersey market.
SMR: Let's briefly touch on an issue that has been rather controversial within the hobby. Some card manufacturers have secured the game-worn uniforms of legendary players, cut them into small swatches, and embedded them in cards. As one of the world's top collectors of game-worn uniforms, what are your thoughts about that?
SW: I think it is sacrilegious and disgusting, and I'm glad we are not seeing that happen much anymore. To me, it is the same as cutting up the Mona Lisa. These are national treasures - items worn by some of the most revered, renowned, and celebrated figures in American history while they were applying their craft. Many of these players are just as famous today as they were when they played 80, 90, or 100 years ago, and their names will still be known 100 years from now.
The uniforms they wore are cherished relics like anything of great historical significance. These are the kinds of items we would normally find in the world's most exclusive private collections, institutions, or museums. No one would ever consider breaking up an item found in King Tut's tomb or cutting a Rembrandt painting into little squares. Like those treasures, these uniforms are historical artifacts that should be deeply appreciated and enjoyed by the collectors and the public. They should be carefully cared for so that people can always see them, not cut up and sold with a pack of cards.
SMR: Your passion on this issue is greatly respected, but, if you will, may we look at the other side of the coin. By making small swatches of a beloved player's uniform available in a card, it allows those who otherwise could never afford such a thing to also own a piece of history.
SW: That argument has no credence with me. Once a jersey is cut up, it is no longer a jersey. It is just a small piece of cloth. And to me, it is destruction. I just can't imagine taking a jersey worn by Lou Gehrig and destroying it. Can you imagine cutting up the Mona Lisa into a thousand pieces and selling them just so more people can have a piece of a great significant work of art? The notion that someone can own a piece of history does not outweigh the travesty and the sacrilegious act of destroying something that is a relic of American history.
SMR: There are only a handful of private collectors who are the owners, and thus the guardians, of the treasured items you feature in your book. As one of them, what are your feelings about the responsibility that is bestowed upon you for their care?
SW: I feel an immense responsibility to care for them and to share them. I've done that over the years through my books. I have also spent the last 20 years or so working closely with a number of museums and their senior advisors. I have worked with cities, teams, and various institutions to place my items on loan with them so they can be shared through exhibitions.
I have never asked for a penny in return, and I encourage everyone I know who collects on this level to do the same so these things can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. I believe it has great educational value for people to actually see these historical items. So that is my way of being responsible and giving back for the time they are in my possession.
SMR: As usual, we must ask - out of your entire collection, do you have a favorite?
SW: That is the toughest question you could be asked. It's like asking a parent who is their favorite child. If I had to answer, I would say, in my own collection, it would have to be the 1937 Lou Gehrig road jersey (also worn again in 1939). Then, the second choice would be a full home Chicago White Sox uniform that was worn by Clarence "Red" Faber in 1919.
That was the year the White Sox went to the World Series, which has become known as the year of the Black Sox Scandal because several members of the White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the series. Faber was a member of the 1919 team, but he was not involved in the scandal. He didn't even play in the series because of an injury, but his uniform is the only one still known to exist from that squad.
SMR: Everyone who has ever written a book comes away from the project a different person in some way. How are you different since writing your latest book?
SW: I'm different in what I have learned. I have done two other books, but writing this one gave me a newfound appreciation for authors. Writing and researching a book is not easy. We all go into Barnes & Noble or on Amazon and look at the hundreds of thousands of books that are available and never really think of the work behind each one - the hours of research, writing, and photo shoots. It can be painful at times [laughs].
I consider myself to be a good writer, but producing a book of this magnitude is not something you can just whip out. While working on this book, I would find myself going into a zone, and I tried not to socialize much while working on it because it was important for me to be totally focused, and that focus took on a life of its own. Writing is a form of expression, and anyone who decides to write a book tries to create something that will entertain, inform, and emotionally move the reader by their word choices, the photos that are selected, and the research that has been conducted. It's not an easy task to write about game-worn uniforms and make it interesting to the widest audience possible.
Yes, the book is beautiful, but at first glance, someone may say: "Why would I want to read a book about a bunch of old baseball uniforms?" Luckily, judging by the reviews on Amazon.com, people have been intrigued by it and have really enjoyed it. I think that is because Dave and I did painstaking planning on this book. We didn't want it to be a geeky study that would only appeal to collectors. If we had done that, we know we would have lost a lot of readers. So, we decided to write it in a way that it would appeal to a wide audience.
That was a very important judgement call, and part of the process was making sure we had an excellent photographer so we could properly express the power and magnitude of the uniforms. We wanted very dramatic shots, so the lighting and the positioning of the uniforms was very important. You mentioned Francesco Sapienza before. He was amazing. I personally went to every photo shoot he did and worked with him to choreograph the shots. This book represents a lot of time and emotional commitment. It's very powerful and really touches people. Dave and I were very committed to telling the story of these beautiful artifacts and paying proper tribute to their significance. I feel we did that, and I'm extremely proud of it.
Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game's Greatest Heroes and Moments (Smithsonian Books, 2016) is destined to become a collectible in its own right. The book retails for $34.95 and is available in major bookstores and at Amazon.com.
Thank you to Francesco Sapienza for providing the images that accompany this article.