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Five NHL teams do it, but the Braves are the only baseball team that does it. No NBA team does it anymore, although several used to. And no NFL team has ever done it.
Uni Watch is referring, of course, to the use of vertically arched lettering for player names on the backs of jerseys, a painstaking process that adds a touch of class to any uni design.
If you're unfamiliar with the concept of vertical arching, here's a quick primer. The lettering for player names on most jerseys is radially arched, which means the letters are fanned out to form a crescent. This creates the illusion of curvilinear typography, but in fact none of the letters are curved or slanted -- they've just been rotated a bit. Ah, but with vertically arched lettering (or VAL, as Uni Watch will henceforth refer to it), each individual letter receives its own distinct degree of "uphill" or "downhill" slant, depending on its place within the player's name. Check out this photo of Ryan Langerhans -- see how the "A" near the beginning of his name is different from the "A" towards the end? See how the name holds together as a streamlined, unified whole, instead of spreading out all clunky-like? See how even a really long name can look pretty slick like this, instead of all cluttered like this? That's the beauty of the vertical arch.
Teams understand this beauty -- that's why so many of them use VAL on the fronts of their jerseys, as you can see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here, and that's just a small sample. Some NCAA teams even up the aesthetic ante by using VAL for the top word of their jersey insignia and negative arching for the bottom word, like Georgia Tech and North Carolina (although UNC's arching is much more subtle these days than it used to be).
So why don't more of these teams use VAL for player names? Because it's a pain in the butt to execute. Each name essentially has to be custom-designed, and you need to keep lots of different versions of each letter on hand. By contrast, with radial arching each letter is the same no matter where it appears in a player's name, so a team's uniforms can all be done with the same basic stock letters (most of which, incidentally, come from this company).
But VAL is definitely worth the hassle -- not just aesthetically, but practically. Uni Watch typography consultant Sara Soskolne (a professional typeface designer who recently helped develop most of these) explains why: "A jersey's spatial constraints necessitate ultra-narrow lettering styles and a steep baseline curvature, and that makes radially arched letters pretty dicey. In fact, the steeper the curve and the narrower the letters, the sillier radially arched letters will look, and the less legible and space-efficient they become. Conversely, the utility and grooviness of vertically arched letters actually increase in direct proportion to these same factors."
If that all sounds a bit too technical, don't fret. Bill Henderson's "Double-Knit Era Collector's Reference" (an essential purchase for anyone reading this, don'tcha know) includes a great little VAL tutorial, which he's generously allowed Uni Watch to reproduce here. This page explains the basic concept, and this one explains how it's actually done.
Henderson also put Uni Watch in touch with Gary Clem, co-owner of Center Star Sports, a Texas company that does lettering for the Houston Rockets, Texans and Comets. None of those teams use VAL, but Clem also did the letters for the San Francisco Giants back in the late '80s, when they were still VAL-clad. "It was very labor-intensive," he recalls. "I created a pattern for each player on the roster, and I had to do it by hand. I used legal file folders as my pattern material. Nowadays, it's all computer-cut. You put the block letters in a machine and program it for, say, 3-inch vertical arch, and it laser-cuts the letters for you."
Hmmm, that doesn't sound so hard, at least not compared to the old days. But VAL is much less common today than it was when everything had to be done by hand. Here's a sport-by-sport rundown:
MLB: There used to be lots of VAL teams out there on the diamond, including the Royals, Twins, Pirates, Phillies, Padres, Orioles and Giants (thanks yet again to Bill Henderson, who provided the pics). But today, the Braves are the lone VAL holdout -- most of the time, that is. When they call up or acquire a new player, he often starts out with radially arched lettering instead of VAL, presumably because Atlanta's equipment manager doesn't have time to get it done properly. Last May, for example, when the Braves promoted Kelly Johnson from Triple-A , the back of his uni looked like this for his first week or two. But they eventually got him a proper nameplate. (As an aside, Uni Watch notes that the Braves have always used radial arching for their batting practice jerseys -- a troubling inconsistency.)
NBA: With most teams using radial arching (except for the Pistons and Raptors, who use straight horizontal lettering), the NBA is VAL-free these days. But it wasn't always that way. Back in the day, the Hawks, Bullets, Braves, Knicks, Sixers, Blazers and Royals, among others, were all in the VAL camp. The ABA had a VAL contingent too, including the Squires, Q's and Floridians (who used VAL on the back of their late-1960s uni but for some reason settled for radial arching on the front). Alas, those days are long gone.
NHL: Hockey was VAL-less until 1983, when the Red Wings became the first team to go from straight to arched lettering. Five teams are currently on board: the Avalanche, Panthers, Rangers, Sharks and Red Wings (who, in a move that invariably sends fans into a momentary September panic, use a completely different lettering style during the preseason). All the other teams now use straight lettering, although the Lightning used to use VAL, and for one season the Capitals experimented with a flat-topped vertical arch for their alternate jersey. (Also worth mentioning, although not truly an example of arching: the Islanders' bizarre mid-1990s flirtation with seasickness-inducing typography.)
NFL: There's no arching, vertical or otherwise, in the NFL, because the league's nameplates are all straight. In fact, Uni Watch is unaware of any football team, pro or college, that's ever used any sort of arched lettering for player names. (If anybody knows of one, you know what to do.)
So there's the sorry reality: 122 pro sports teams, and only six of them are using VAL. Uni Watch is willing to give the NFL a pass, since straight, blocky lettering seems appropriate for the game's broad-shouldered silhouette. And the Yankees and Dodgers get a special dispensation, since their jerseys don't have player names (although according to a note at the very end of this news item, the Dodgers may restore the names in 2007). But that still leaves 90 teams, 84 of which are distressingly VAL-deficient -- and with all those fancy computerized lettering machines just waiting to have the vertical arch code programmed into them!
With that in mind, Uni Watch has some characteristically modest proposals:
• Any team using VAL on the front of its jersey shall be required to use it for player names on the back. (Waivers shall be granted for NFL teams, however.)
• As a matter of civic pride and common sense, all non-football teams in St. Louis shall use VAL, the better to evoke the spirit and visage of their city's signature landmark.
• A 1 percent payroll tax shall be levied on all NBA, NHL and MLB teams not using VAL (except for the Dodgers, Yankees and other teams that don't use player names). This shall be known as the VALue Added Tax.
• In order to promote VAL awareness and appreciation, the NBA, NHL and MLB shall use revenue from the tax to jointly purchase the trademarked term "Arch Deluxe" from McDonald's and use it as the slogan for a VAL publicity campaign.
• In the spirit of Peter Puck, the promo campaign will also feature two cartoon characters. The first, known as the Arch Enemy, will be a ne'er-do-well wearing a jersey with non-VAL typography (imagine Snidely Whiplash in a uniform) and will spend his time scheming to subvert the VAL agenda by stealing the Red Wings' jerseys, sabotaging computerized lettering machines and other nefarious misdeeds. But his efforts will be thwarted by the other character, a foxy valkyrie wearing lots of vertically arched typography. She will be known as Valerie the Valkyrie -- Val for short.
And there's more where that came from. Messrs. Selig, Stern and Bettman, Uni Watch anxiously awaits your call.
It's good to know at least one Olympic athlete is a Uni Watch reader. That would be American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, who clearly had Uni Watch's recent "Go for the silver!" exhortation in mind when she brilliantly wiped out just shy of the finish line in the snowboardcross event, thereby snatching sleek, snazzy silver from the jaws of tacky, ostentatious gold. In tribute to her true Olympic spirit and admirable taste in precious metals, Uni Watch plans to send her a gold ingot that's been silver-plated. Keep reading, Lindsey!
In other Olympics developments:
• Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and the other New York Rangers on the Czech hockey team have made good on their promise to wear their red/white/blue Rangers gloves, instead of the Czech team's official gloves (they've even wore them during practice). The weird thing is that there's been no rhyme or reason among the other Czech players' gloves: Some have worn solid blue, others solid red.
• Lots of readers noticed that Jagr has also been wearing an old-style Jofa helmet (instead of the higher-tech Reebok lid he wears with the Rangers), which is no longer allowed in the NHL. As if to prove the foolhardiness of this move, Jagr took a hard spill into the boards on Feb. 18, resulting in a nasty cut.
• More Czech hockey news (courtesy of Billy Ramirez): Dominik Hasek's goalie equipment got lost en route to the Games, forcing him to wear a borrowed set of Italian gear during practice. Fortunately, his regular gear arrived in time for the first game (during which he promptly got injured and had to pull out of the Games).
• There's a lot Uni Watch could say about the women's figure skating outfits (let's not even get started on the symbolism of Irina Slutskya's exploding butt), but that's almost too easy. For now, let's just say Uni Watch is intrigued to see that more and more skaters are using gold blades on their skates, instead of the more traditional silver.
• What's the deal with the American women's freestyle skiing team? Julia Mancuso wore a tiara, and Resi Stiegler wore a pearl necklace. "One of the two -- the necklace-wearer, I believe -- was said to have wanted to wear fluffy cat ears," writes long-time reader Doug Kalemba, who brought this creative accessorization to Uni Watch's attention. "But she was stopped by the IOC, or some such governing body." Actually, Stiegler did wear tiger ears during the slalom.
• Uni Watch's inquiry about why the speedskaters don't wear socks prompted many informative responses, including this one from Marie Bober: "Most speedskaters do tend to go sockless, especially at the elite level, where skates are made by molding casts to your feet. In my skating club, I'd say that the ratio is 8-to-1 for skating without socks." And indeed, this 1992 photo of Bonnie Blair shows that that the sockless look is nothing new. Jeremy Nichols points to this 2002 interview with Blair, in which she said, "A lot of people in my sport skate barefoot. To me it was warmer to skate without socks than with them. And you get a better feel for your skates."
• Another speedskating query: Most of the skaters' outfits are skin-tight, but Nigel Herbig notes that the Canadian unis are kinda wrinkly. "It looks like they are using a different material," he writes. "They're winning quite a few medals in the event, so it's not slowing them down. But couldn't they shave even a few more hundredths of a second off their times if there weren't so many wrinkles and creases?"
A few quick thoughts regarding the NBA All-Star Game and its related festivities:
• The armholes on the Mavericks' jerseys are blue. So how come Jason Terry's armholes had white piping during the 3-Point Shootout? If it was a special All-Star thing, how come they didn't add it to Dirk Nowitzki's jersey too? The distinction is clearly visible in their side-by-side All-Star photo -- weird.
• While we're at it, what's up with those Mavericks logos Terry was wearing on his lower socks?
• Sneaker companies like to use the All-Star Game as a showcase for new sneaker designs, but that exposure can cut both ways. Gilbert Arenas, mired in a sponsorship dispute with adidas, went out of his way to cover up some of the adidas stripes and logos on his sneakers with white tape, which he then inscribed with a "0".
• A wire service report cited by Matt Cooper states that the four Pistons All-Stars wrote "22" on their sneakers, in honor of Tayshaun Prince, the only Detroit starter not selected for the game. But Uni Watch hasn't found much photographic evidence of this -- it's certainly not visible here (although it's possibly visible as a smudge toward the back of Chauncey Billups' sneaker here).
• And here's an interesting postgame note: Pau Gasol's white home sneakers usually look like this. But like most of the All-Stars, he had a special red/white/blue design for the game (that's him on the far right of this photo) -- and he was still wearing them for Memphis' first game after the All-Star break, on Feb. 21.
Some interesting uniform-number scenarios are unfolding in spring training. As previously reported, Ken Griffey Jr. is now wearing No. 3. And over in Red Sox camp, newly acquired J.T. Snow will be wearing No. 84, in honor of his father, former Rams wideout and broadcaster Jack Snow, who died last month.
But the most intriguing situation played out last weekend in Port St. Lucie, where Jose Lima is a nonroster invitee with the Mets. He was initially issued No. 99 but then requested and received No. 42. That number, of course, was retired on an MLB-wide basis in 1997, in honor of Jackie Robinson, but Lima was among the small group of players who were exempted from the rule because they were already wearing 42 at the time (Lima was with the Astros back then). He and Mariano Rivera are the last remaining active players from that group.
But unlike Rivera, Lima hasn't kept wearing No. 42 consistently. He continued wearing it for the rest of his time in Houston, and also when he moved to the Tigers, but not when he was with the Dodgers, and not during his first or second stints with the Royals.
And that, apparently, cost him his 42er eligibility. Or at least that's what the Mets were told after inquiring with the MLB office (a ruling that sounds fishy to Uni Watch). So after only one day, Lima had to switch back to No. 99.
Lima was the third Met to wear 42 since it was retired. The first was Butch Huskey, who was already wearing 42 when the number was mothballed -- and was doing so specifically as a tribute to Robinson, in fact -- and was therefore allowed to keep wearing it. (He later took the number with him to the Mariners and the Twins.) The next was Mo Vaughn, who was wearing 42 with the Red Sox (again, as an overt tribute to Robinson) when the number was retired, and then continued wearing it with the Angels and Mets. Toss in Lima's one-day numerical detour and the Mets have had three 42ers since the number was removed from circulation -- more than any other team.
A few other spring training observations:
• Remember those vented batting helmets that were showcased in last year's All-Star Game? Looks like we're gonna be seeing a lot more of them this year. And the Mets' version appears to be two-tone -- ugh. In fact, it looks like even the Mets' regular, non-vented helmets now have the two-tone gradation. Look for more info on this in Uni Watch's next column. For now, props to the several readers who've pointed out the biggest problem with the vented lids: You can't serve ice cream in a souvenir helmet that has holes in it!
• Also good to see Jim Leyland and his coaching staff setting a good example with the high cuffs.
• David Wells looks as fit as ever.
• Is it just Uni Watch, or does the MLB logo on Michael Collins' chest protector look awfully big?
• Are all the Mets wearing these crazy socks?
Uni Watch News Ticker
In what is sure to go down as the year's coolest promotional move (well, except maybe for the "Arch Deluxe" campaign), Detroit Tigers marketing coordinator Ron Wade is trying to revive the team's sorely missed swinging kitten logo. "I'm going to start slipping him into our season-ticket holder newsletter and see if demand catches on," he says. Let Uni Watch be the first to say that the kitten should -- nay, must! -- start appearing on T-shirts, caps, mugs, pillows and virtually any other available surface. And hey, what about a sleeve patch? Kitten power! Logo Creep Alert: You would've needed a calculator to count all the swooshes at the recent Millrose Mile (with thanks to Liam Boylan-Pett). More logo creep, courtesy of Ian O'Neil: "I know you don't use too many cricket photos in your column. But as you can see, the Indian team's swoosh appears to have been injected with some sort of growth hormone, and in one case it's turned purple! Now, I know much of international law is still being written, but this has got to land Phil Knight at the Hague." Interesting catch by Josh Curran, who writes: "I thought the jersey balls sold by the NBA were a cool uni-related thing. But then I noticed that Yao Ming's ball has 'Ming' printed on it, when of course he wears 'Yao' on his real jerseys." Reid Tynan notes that Carmelo Anthony wore blue sneakers on Feb. 10, instead of the team's usual black. Uni Watch initially thought these might be special All-Star sneakers that were made for Melo when it was assumed that he'd make the All-Star team, but sneaker guru Todd Krevanchi says no. "His All-Star makeup would have been the black-and-white cookie of footwear. But this is the first time I've seen that blue design." Uni Watch mentioned the USA's World Cup soccer kits the last time around. Other recently unveiled designs: Australia, Croatia, South Korea, The Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico (home, road, keeper, cool Aztec-inspired stripe detail). Winston-Salem State hoops players are all wearing "C.E. Gaines" on their jerseys this season, in memory of long-time coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines (with thanks to Ernie Suggs). Interesting story from a reader who prefers to remain anonymous: "On Feb. 1, Marquette point guard Dominic James was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt under his gold jersey, to cover up some padding to protect an injured shoulder. I mentioned to someone on press row that a gold T-shirt would look better. Then, after the first media timeout, James came out of the huddle wearing a gold T-shirt. Rumor has it he got it from one of the ball kids." (And as an aside, Uni Watch notes that Marquette's front jersey lettering is vertically arched.) Arizona State baseball is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1981 College World Series championship team with a throwback uni, complete with period-appropriate stirrups, to be worn on May 14. On Feb. 17 and 18 the Milwaukee Admirals wore Bob Uecker-inspired plaid jerseys, which made their Brewers chest patch look even weirder. Dynamite article here about the history and implications of the relationship between Jerry West and the NBA logo. Goalie pads cover a multitude of sins. Case in point: Canucks goalie Alex Auld used to wear the team's regular socks. But these days, as A.J. Brandt points out, he doesn't bother. College lacrosse report, courtesy of Travis Holland: "The 2006 season is underway, with a neutral-site game played between Ohio State and North Carolina at Calvert Hall in Baltimore. Both teams chose to wear their dark road colors. Similar to the old USC vs. UCLA games, eh?" True enough, although Uni Watch, perhaps predictably, is more interested in the UNC socks. Strikingly Uni Watch-esque analysis here of Pope Benedict's papal garb. Notre Dame unveiled a new black alternate uni against Seton Hall on Feb. 18 (full details here). Brian Thornton of Xavier usually wears high socks. So now that he's out with a fractured ankle, his teammates have begun honoring him by wearing high socks and tights (with thanks to Jim Krallman). Uni Watch can't get too worked up one way or the other about the World Baseball Classic. But does anyone else think it's a little weird that the Chinese caps and jerseys have olde English lettering (kinda like the New York Times logo)? Like, exactly what does that typographic style have to do with China? On the other hand, Uni Watch approvingly notes that the Dominican, Canadian, Mexican and South African jersey insignia are all vertically arched. Football season is over, but Mark Mastin has just now directed Uni Watch's attention to the Temple Wildcats, a Texas high school team whose pants are blue in front and white in the back, creating a really weird effect when viewed from the side. Uni Watch has never seen a design like this. Anyone else? As you may have heard, the Washington Nationals may have to change their name because of a trademark dispute. Read closely, however, and you'll see that the legal brouhaha, which is headed for federal court, isn't over the use of the name for the team itself. It simply boils down to whether the team will be allowed to sell T-shirts, jerseys and such with the Nationals name -- that's what will decide whether an MLB franchise changes its moniker. Further proof, as if any were needed, that uni merchandising is the tail that wags the sports dog these days. According to a report in the Orange County Register (forwarded by Jonee Eisen), Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy "sent rookie James Singleton to the scorer's table to check into the game" on Feb. 15. "But upon removing his sweat bottoms, Singleton discovered that he had the wrong colored game shorts on," forcing newly acquired Vladimir Radmanovic to enter the game instead. Meanwhile, the man for whom Radmanovic was traded -- Chris Wilcox -- has had to make a bit of a hosiery adjustment. He routinely wore his socks well over his knees with the Clippers, but he's had to make due with a slightly lower style now that he's with the Sonics. Speaking of which, David Resnick is distressed to report that over-the-knee socks are starting to appear on the international soccer scene, on such players as John Terry, Fernando Torres, and Oswaldo Sanchez. "I'm a soccer fan, and I'd love to see it develop in the USA," writes Resnick. "But I just can't sell it to non-fans when the effect, desired or not, is this. USA Today has come to the earthshaking conclusion that logo design is an important factor in football helmets.
Our recent discussions of NHL sock-taping habits (epitomized by Donald Brashear, who now appears to have gone back to letting his sock stripes show completely, instead of covering up the middle section, as he'd previously done) inspired reader Jeremy Mitchell to spot another example: Derek Roy of Buffalo. While most of the Sabres use clear tape on their home, road and alternate socks, Roy uses tape that matches the socks' main color (red, white or black, depending on which uni the Sabres are wearing) and usually wraps it near the center of his sock stripes. When he does it just right, it creates the illusion of an entirely new hoop-style stripe pattern.
In other follow-up news:
• Big thanks to the many readers who explained that the semicircular cutouts on the back of Dominik Hasek's pants are not a user modification. The cutouts are a standard feature for many goalie breezers these days. They're referred to here, for example, as the "TPS Arch."
• Our recent discussion of college hoops coaches who wear sportswear company lapel pins prompted this missive from Mark Mastin: "Not only does Bob Knight wear the adidas logo on both of his collar points, but he's also got 'O'Reilly Auto Parts' on his sweater, just as big as Texas Tech. The O'Reilly logo is also prominent in his practice sweatshirt [which you can sort of see here]."
• Last week's mention of the lack of footwear uniformity among Wisconsin basketball players (some wear white, others red) caught the eye of Brian Temke, who writes: "Brian Lucas, the UW assistant director of athletic communications, is keeping a blog of the season, and the players' shoes was the topic of conversation the other day."
• Last week's note about Arizona State's Emily Westerberg wearing a long-sleeved shirt under her jersey brought a really fascinating response from Eric Distenfeld: "Many of the good women of Yeshiva University's basketball team have been wearing long-sleeved tees under their jerseys for years. In addition, as you can see, some of them also wear skirts. This is done for religious reasons, in the belief that skirts and long sleeves are more modest."
• The recent discussion of Michael Jordan once having his game uni stolen and being forced to wear a nameless No. 12 jersey reminded Cosmo Joseph Santullo of the time MJ was recast as Johnny Kilroy, who was "a character in a series of Nike commercials that ran after Jordan's retirement, chronicling a fictional secret comeback. A video of one of the ads (in which Mike wears a few different uniforms) can be seen here.
Plans continue apace for the Uni Watch Athletics Aesthetics Party, slated for March 12 at 3 p.m., at Southpaw in Brooklyn. Donovan Moore (president of the Society for Sports Uniform Research) and Scott Turner (former design director for Stall & Dean) are the latest luminaries who've agreed to participate in our Q&A panel, which will also feature NBA apparel director Christopher Arena, uni designers Todd Radom and Tom O'Grady, and your friendly neighborhood Uni Watch. Should be quite the raucous caucus.
Lots of readers tell Uni Watch they plan to fly in from out of town for the event. And those trips will be well worth it, because Uni Watch plans to raffle off a few prizes, including a rare copy of the 2001 Major League Baseball Style Guide (which shows the official uni specs for each team) and several official NFL helmet decals (including the memorial decals for Hank Stram, Pat Tillman and Tex Schramm).
As you might imagine, all those out-of-town party attendees are putting quite a strain on the city's hotel capacity. But the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau assures Uni Watch that a few choice rooms are still available, so book that flight already and join us for what should be a really swell event.
Paul Lukas owns a really cool 1930s baseball uniform from a Wisconsin factory team, complete with vertically arched lettering on the front. His answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.