How did Mets settle on black uniforms?
Even if you're colorblind, the biggest uniform trend of the past dozen years or so is easy enough to see.
Uni Watch is of course referring to the relentless use of black by teams whose standard color schemes had never included black. Call it marketing, call it trend-hopping, call it what the kids are into these days, but here at Uni Watch HQ we call it BFBS -- black for black's sake.
Nowhere has BFBS been more controversial than in the case of the New York Mets. They were among the earliest and most enthusiastic ebony adopters back in the late 1990s (see the sidebar on this page for details on all the BFBS elements they added at that time) and remain one of the most black-happy teams today. And while some Mets fans have embraced the dark side, plenty of others -- including a certain uniform columnist -- cried foul at the get-go and haven't shut up about it since, resulting in a robust debate that continues to this day. The issue is routinely debated on assorted Mets blogs, and Mets radio broadcaster Howie Rose emphasizes his disdain for the black uni elements on a near-daily basis. At one point somebody even started an informal "Ditch the Black" T-shirt campaign, although Uni Watch can't imagine who that somebody might have been.
But throughout this 13-year black-and-blue war, one question has gone unanswered: What was the genesis of the Mets' BFBS program? Did it start with team owner Fred Wilpon? Equipment manager Charlie Samuels? Some grunt in the marketing department? The MLB Properties office?
At long last, Uni Watch has the answer. And it's a revealing story -- not just about the Mets, but about how uniform decisions get made in general.
As you might expect, the main impetus for the Mets' blackout came from the marketing folks. And Charlie Samuels -- who apparently rubbed lots of people the wrong way before being sacked last winter in the wake of a gambling and theft investigation -- played a big role, too.
But the most important character in the story turns out to have been a low-ranking employee at a small California uniform manufacturer that most fans have never heard of. His name is Bob Halfacre.
Here's the deal: Back in the 1990s, MLB teams were free to negotiate their own uniform deals (unlike today, when Majestic has the contract for all of MLB). Most teams at that time were dealing with large, established companies like Rawlings, Wilson or Russell Athletic. But in 1995, the Mets switched from Russell to a small outfitter in the Los Angeles area called AIS. AIS ended up supplying most of the Mets' uniforms from 1995 through 1999 -- which includes the period when the team went BFBS. Bob Halfacre was working for AIS at the time.
These days, Halfacre has his own uni company, called Bobcat Athletic. He's the one who made the uniforms for the Dodgers' recent throwback games against the Braves on April 21 and against the Cubs on May 4. As we were wrapping up a recent Uni Watch interview about those uniforms (it's really interesting -- check it out here), Halfacre dropped a little factoid into the proceedings, all casual-like:
"The answer is none -- none more black"
Most teams adding black to their uniform set just unveil a solid-black alternate jersey and call it a day. But when the Mets added black in 1998 and '99, they went all in. Here's what they did during that two-season span:
• They introduced two different black alternate caps, both of which they began wearing far more often than their blue primary cap.
• They changed their undershirts, socks and belts from blue to black for all road games and most home games.
• And just in case anyone was missing the point, they added a black version of their skyline logo.
Most of these changes are still in effect today, although lately the pendulum has begun to swing back toward blue, at least a bit. Earlier this season, the team wore its blue caps, sleeves and socks for an entire seven-game homestand, believed to be the first such occurrence since 1997.
One reason the color wars are such a hot-button issue with Mets fans is that team's original color scheme was chosen to tell a very specific story. As the heirs to New York's National League baseball heritage, the Mets intentionally used blue and orange to reference the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who'd departed for California just a few years before the Mets' inception.
Yes, the Giants also wore black, but it was never part of the Mets' color scheme for the franchise's first 36 seasons, and the team made no mention of the Giants when it added all the black elements. So for many Mets fans, the addition of black has cheapened a key element of the team's origin story (plus it just seems like a cheesy trend-hopping move). For these fans, the rallying cry over the past decade or so has been, "True Mets = Blue Mets."
-- Paul Lukas
"So you know I'm the Mets-in-black guy, right?"
Um, meaning what?
"I'm the one who designed it."
You don't say.
That set us off on a whole new interview, in which Halfacre revealed the full backstory on the black story. Here's how it went:
Bob Halfacre: All of that was mine, yes. See, they spent two years trying to get black in their uniforms
UW: When you say, "they," who are you referring to?
BH: The Mets, Charlie Samuels -- Charlie Samuels was a very, very powerful man with that team. He had a lot of control over things there. Anyone wanted anything done, it had to go through him. At AIS, we had a sales rep who was very tight with him. They were not happy with Russell [the team's previous outfitter] at the time. They were looking for more control, and we were a fledgling little company that offered them that, so we made a deal to make their uniforms. And they were determined to get black in their uniform.
UW: Because of Charlie? Or was it a marketing thing?
BH: It was a marketing thing. Marketing wanted black. Remember, this was when the black trend was just starting to gain momentum. Lots of hockey teams were wearing it, all sorts of teams. And one thing the Mets were convinced about was that the Yankees were killing them at retail, especially with the hats, because people didn't like royal blue. So they wanted a darker color, a black element. I know they paid a couple of designers to mess around with it, but nothing worked out.
Now, I was about the third person down the food chain at AIS with the Mets. My biggest contribution up to that point had been the glacier twill [a fabric with a textured herringbone pattern, used by no other MLB team except the Mets].
UW: Wait, you were the guy behind that, too?
BH: Yeah, Liebe [the company that sews logos, names and numbers on many MLB jerseys] had just got the glacier twill going, and I said to Charlie, "Let's use that." See, Charlie wanted chain-stitching [a gorgeous style of textured embroidery, very old-school but still used by the Cardinals, Astros and Phillies]. That's what he wanted to go back to.
UW [about to cry]: And you talked him out of it?
BH: Yeah, I did.
UW [wanting to jump through the phone line and strangle him, cartoon-style]: Dude, I'm gonna kill you!
BH: Ah, you don't wanna go with chain-stitching. It's too much work, too many jerseys. So I said let's try the herringbone pattern, the glacier twill. And that worked fine -- Charlie was happy with that. And then they wanted to add black. The sales rep at the time, Charlie was always talking to him about that.
Now, Charlie's a very difficult person to be friendly with, much less have a relationship with, and so I just minded my own business and stayed out of it. But after about the third time of hearing about how they wanted to add black but they couldn't figure out a good way of doing it, I said, "Can I take a shot at it?"
And they said, "What?" And I said, "I've got an idea in my head -- would it be all right if I took a shot?" So the sales rep called Charlie and they basically said sure, nobody likes any of the options that anyone else has come up with, so go ahead.
UW: Do you know what kinds of things they had tried?
BH: It was big changes, where they really wanted to change the whole look. And my thinking was, there's nothing wrong with this look. It looks great, the cap looks great, the road jersey with the Red Sox-y lettering is classic -- that's my favorite Mets jersey, in fact, and they wanted to make big changes to that. But I said no, you don't want to do that, you don't need to overhaul your look.
My thought was this: I've only been to New York three or four times in my life, but what I remember is shadows. You have all these skyscrapers, so everything has shadows. You live there, so you probably take it for granted, but to me it was unique. City of shadows. One side of the street is sunny and warm, the other side is in shadow and cold. Everywhere you go in New York, there's shadows. So I thought it was the perfect logo for a drop shadow, just to add a bit of depth.
I didn't even draw it -- I just cut it out of twill. I took a Mets logo, dropped some black on it, hand-cut the whole thing, put it on a sample uniform, popped it in a FedEx box, and there you go.
UW: That's interesting. You know, I assumed the drop shadow was the result of someone monkeying around on a computer. It's so easy to add drop shadows to a design digitally, and I've always been certain that someone in the marketing department was playing on the computer and called everyone over and said, "Look, look how cool this looks!" and everyone said, "Yeah!" and that's how it happened.
BH: Nope. It was me and a pair of scissors. Charlie called our sales rep the next morning and said they absolutely loved it. And that was that.
UW: And now, 13 years later, do you still like the drop shadow?
BH: Yeah, I do. It's a little cloudy-looking on the pinstriped jersey -- that might be too much. I think it looks really good on the names and numbers, but the Mets logo kinda loses something. Looking back, I wish we had thinned out the logo a bit, so there would still be windows in the letters.
UW: Right, the windows got filled in by the shadow. I hate that.
BH: Yeah, even the slightest bit of white in there makes it jump. So I wish we'd done that.
I originally did a cap design, too -- just the basic royal blue hat with a very slight black shadow on the "NY" -- but Charlie ended up messing with that.
The original prototype I did had a shadow on the sleeve patch, too. I even messed with one that had a shadow on the pinstripes. So you'd have a big, blue pinstripe and then a faint black pinstripe shadowing it.
UW: Really? Did you make any samples of that? Do you have any old sketches or anything?
BH: I drew that one out on the lunchroom table in about 10 minutes, but I sent the Mets the only copy I had. I was just trying different things. [Halfacre recreated the sketch shortly after this interview.]
UW: Was it your idea to change the undersleeves, socks and everything else to black?
BH: No, that was all Charlie's doing.
UW: So that explains all the black shadow elements. But how did the solid-black jersey come about?
BH: I remember getting a yell from the office: "Come here, Charlie wants to talk to you for a minute." So I got on the phone and he says, "I want a black jersey -- what should I do, what colors should I use?" And I say, "Blue and white with an orange shadow." And he says, "Right, OK." It was that arbitrary. Honest to goodness, Paul, that's how it was back then -- there was no league approval needed
UW: Really? In 1998? That isn't so long ago.
BH: Back then, you did what you wanted and you said, "This is what we're doing." It's changed a lot since then.
UW: So you didn't do a mock-up of the black jersey?
BH: Nope. I just told Charlie which colors to use. And honestly, I don't think it's so bad -- I mean, it could certainly be worse. And I thought it'd be fine if they wore it once a month or so, but instead it took on a life of its own.
UW: What about the black version of the skyline logo -- did you have anything to do with that?
BH: No, that was Liebe's doing, along with Charlie, because they wanted to change the sleeve patch around. Basically, I gave Charlie the idea and then he ran with it. And when I saw some of the things they were doing, like with the hats, I said, "Wait, you don't wanna do this " and they said, "It's not your call." So it was like, "You made your contribution, thanks for coming."
I won't say I'm bitter, but I was a little disappointed that nobody ever said thanks. Not once. You'd think someone could've written a note on letterhead saying, "Thanks for moving us forward" or something. Basically, I did a job that would've netted someone a five-digit design fee, and I was pretty much told, "That's your job; you're supposed to take care of them; they're a customer of ours." I mean, I'm a behind-the-scenes guy anyway, but still. And then the Reds and the Royals pretty much copied the whole idea.
Overall, though, I think it turned out OK. Believe me, if we hadn't done this, it could have been a whole lot worse, based on what they wanted to do. They might not even have kept the Mets script. So in a way I was really happy that they did listen and stayed with their core design.
Faaaaascinating. The most interesting aspect of all this is that the Mets have never used Halfacre's "City of shadows" storyline in any of their marketing or promotional campaigns. So the whole aesthetic concept behind the black uni elements -- a concept that could have made some of the black trim more palatable to fans who've never warmed up to it -- was ignored. Just another misstep by a team that seems to specialize in them.
Paul Lukas, a lifelong Mets fan, remains hopeful that the team will one day ditch the black. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.
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