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Thursday, February 6, 2003
Updated: February 10, 12:43 PM ET
Closet of Dreams

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Back when there was a George Foreman but no George Foreman Grill, you couldn't get a replica jersey even if you were the nation's best high school basketball player.

It's true. It might be difficult today to buy a shirt without a team's logo on it, but as recently as the mid-'70s, most Americans still were unable to purchase a team jersey, whether or not it included "authentic'' heavy mesh and heavy screened numerals.

Fran Tarkenton
"Hand over the jersey, Mary Richards, and no one gets hurt."
I was a huge Vikings fan back then and desperately wanted a Minnesota jersey, but the only one I ever saw that wasn't worn by an actual Viking was the Fran Tarkenton jersey Mary Tyler Moore donned while washing her car during her show's opening credits. I wanted that Tarkenton jersey so badly that if Mary had ripped it off her body and handed it to me personally, I would have been too busy slipping it over my skinny body to even bother looking at her naked chest.

True, she must have gotten the jersey from somewhere and, had I lived in the Twin Cities, I might (and I stress the word "might") have been able to find one, too. But I didn't. I lived 1,500 miles from Minnesota and there was nowhere for me to buy that Tarkenton jersey. It's as difficult to imagine a life without cell phones, the Internet or "MTV Cribs,'' but back then, if you didn't live in the city where the team played, you simply were out of luck when it came to buying any gear with a team logo.

Well, that's not strictly true. There was one place to buy a limited amount of baseball merchandise. Manny's Baseball Land in Hackensack offered caps, plastic helmets and pennants in an advertisement that ran each spring in Street and Smith's baseball preview magazine.

Ahhhh, Manny's Baseball Land. The name itself seemed as distant and exotic as Casablanca or Samarqand, a fabulous but unreachable land where oompa-loompas stocked the shelves with team caps, jackets and pennants, while lucky tourists bartered for them with hookah-smoking merchants.

"I'll give you $5 for the San Francisco Giants cap."

"You insult me. My daughter personally hand-stitched the logos on each cap until her fingers bled crimson rivers. I fear no man shall have her for a wife now. I could not possibly sell for less than $18."

Willie Mays, Barry Bonds
Willie Mays gets emotional at a memorial service for Jim Caple's hat and dog.
"$6."

"Truly, the dogs of Mesopotamia are gnawing at your soul. Can you not feel the cap's fine wool that was shorn each dawn from my family's lone pair of Fabrianese sheep? To protect the wool, we housed the sheep in our children's bedroom and my son grew so attached to them that I shudder at the unspeakably perverted acts into which he may have been tempted. No, it is too terrible. I cannot possibly sell for less than $15."

"$7."

"Blasphemy! I demand that you leave my establishment immediately before I am forced to take my just vengeance. But first, examine the exquisite leather sweatband, precisely dyed, measured, cut and then sewn into each cap by my very own wife until she was driven mad. She no longer recognizes my face and refuses to oblige the pleasures that are my right as husband. Truly, the suffering is unimaginable. I cannot possibly sell for less than $12."

"All right, $9. But that's my final offer."

"Would you like that fitted or with the adjustable strap?"

When I finally placed an order with Manny's Baseball Land, I found the actual transaction to be much more straightforward. I simply sent a money order to cover the cap, plus postage and handling, and a couple weeks later it arrived in the mail.

LET'S GET RETRO
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  • With trembling fingers, I opened the package as if it contained the lost Ark of the Covenant. In truth, it contained something more valuable: the familiar black baseball cap with the bright orange SF logo that Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Bobby Bonds and the rest of my heroes had worn. Wearing it made me more than just a fan, it made me part of the Giants lineup as surely as if I had signed a contract.

    I treasured that cap. I wore it as religiously as an Orthodox Jew wearing his yarmulke. I wore it so often that the Giants should have paid me naming rights for my forehead. I wore that cap so constantly that, even now, nearly three decades later, I still have permanent hat-head.

    That is, I wore it until my dog chewed a hole in the back of the cap. He's been dead almost 20 years, and I still miss him enough that I occasionally have dreams with him in it, but I haven't forgiven him.

    My mother tried patching the hole with black felt, but it was no use. It was ruined. And because I had already thrown out the Street and Smith magazine with the Manny's Baseball Land advertisement there was no way to replace it until the following spring.

    I wouldn't have had to wait today. It's so much better these days when there are more stores selling caps, jerseys and other replica gear than there are selling $4.75 mocha lattes. Forget about the current teams and players; you can buy replica jerseys for teams that last appeared in the sports pages about the same time as ads for Chesterfield Cigarettes.

    One company selling these throwback jerseys is Seattle's Stall & Dean, formerly known as Ebbets Field Flannels. A couple weeks ago, the company held its annual warehouse sale, opening the doors and allowing customers to pour through rack upon rack of jerseys. It was like stepping through the screen of ESPN Classic and into the world's coolest attic.

    Team USA
    Do you believe in miracles? Well, for $150 you can.
    Look, there was the U.S. Olympic hockey jersey worn during the 1980 Miracle on Ice. And right next to it, the 1972 Soviet Union national team sweater worn during the unparalleled Hockey Summit Series. And over there -- the Buffalo Bisons hockey jersey from when Pepsi owned the team and put an enormous Pepsi cap logo on the chest.

    Hanging on that wall -- a Hawaiian Warriors football jacket. And there -- the jersey for the Brooklyn Bay Parkways football team. Over there -- a Birmingham Black Barons jersey and an Indianapolis Clowns jacket from the Negro Leagues. And over there -- stacks of T-shirts for the San Francisco Seals and the rest of the old Pacific Coast League.

    Piling the shirts in my arms was as close as I'll ever get to the feeling women must have when they walk into Nordstrom's half-yearly sale.

    Of course, the Stall & Dean customers were by no means limited to men. My wife bought a Roswell Rockets T-shirt and a Roswell Rockets sweatshirt to go with her Roswell Rockets jersey (she passed on the Roswell Rockets cap, preferring her Rockford Peaches cap). And store manager Steven Bird said my wife isn't alone. The jerseys appeal to everyone, regardless of age or gender.

    "The ages of our customers is very spread out. You'll see a wider variety than we've ever had," Bird said. "I've sold the same jersey back-to-back to one guy who was 20 and the next guy who was 70. And I see more women buying things. They used to only buy for their husband or boyfriend. A lot more women are buying for themselves now. This is not gender specific. Yeah, these were jerseys won by men but it's still cool-looking stuff."

    Look over there -- a couple Portland Beavers shirts. And there -- the Hollywood Stars. And the Atlanta Crackers. The Havana Sugar Kings. The Santa Rosa Prunepickers.

    "Some of the things are just popular for the bizarre name value," Bird said. "The Bonham Boogers, the Des Moines Undertakers, the Joliet Convicts. People say, 'This isn't a real team, you made this up.' No, we didn't. As they say, you can look it up. My favorite has always been the Nevada Lunatics. It's spelled Nevada, but it's pronounced Ne-VAY-da, which is a town in Missouri that was home to the Missouri state insane asylum. So they named the team the Lunatics."

    As colorful as the minor league baseball names are, the barnstorming basketball teams are even better. The House of David, the Philadelphia Hebrews, the Brooklyn Visitations, the Arctic Brotherhood, and of course, the best of them all: Olson's Terrible Swedes.

    Staring at them, I half expected to see Jimmy Chitwood step from behind the rack and run the old picket fence.

    This nostalgia doesn't come cheap, as LeBron James discovered. The 1957 Mexico City Diablos Rojos costs $235. A 1945 Kansas City Monarchs jacket goes for $400. Even the Terrible Swedes basketball jersey, little more than a nice tank top, is $135. And if that sounds steep, remember the Wes Unseld and Gale Sayers jerseys given to James normally sell for $850.

    But paying such prices makes more sense than paying $5,000 for a personal seat license. If we wear our hearts on our sleeves when rooting for our favorite teams, why shouldn't we wear their names on our chests? And if, as Jerry Seinfeld put it once, we're really only rooting for the jerseys in this age of free agency, we might as well own the laundry rights.

    Terrible Swedes
    Be the first, and last, kid on your block to give props to the Swedes.
    Besides who can put a price on memories?

    "Older men don't cry but I've seen them get awfully soft around the edges when they see them, let's put it that way," Bird said. "I've seen guys see a particular hat or jersey from a place where they grew up and they say, 'Oh, my Dad took me to their games.' One guy got quivery in his voice when he saw a Newark Bears jersey. He and his brother had gone to Newark Bears games, and his brother had just died, and he still was feeling the loss."

    I'm not surprised. Our attachments to teams leave a deep, personal and permanent impression, even without the "authentic" industrial-strength stitching.

    By the way, Distant Replays is selling that 1975 Tarkenton jersey I wanted so badly for $250 on its website. The sad part is that having had my fill of the sleazy Tarkenton over the past quarter century on late-night infomercials, I don't want it anymore.

    If anyone has a line on an Alan Page No. 88, however, let me know.

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.