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Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Updated: November 10, 11:01 AM ET
The mystery of the Major League Baseball logo designer

By Paul Lukas
Page 2

Journalists get bylines, photographers get photo credits, and artists get to sign their paintings. But designers rarely get public credit for their work -- they're just vendors providing a service for a client. No signature, no credit, no copyright, no royalties. All of which can lead to confusion and conflict down the road.

Uni Watch

Consider, for example, the Major League Baseball logo. It's a masterpiece of modern brand design, it's more iconic and visible than ever, and it turns 40 years old next year (an unusually long life span in the logo world, where designs are constantly getting overhauled or at least tweaked), yet its designer has never been publicly acknowledged.

The Wall Street Journal took a step toward changing that situation two weeks ago, when it ran an article identifying Jerry Dior, a 76-year-old retired graphic designer, as the man behind the logo. Or at least that's what he claims -- he doesn't have any records or paperwork to prove it, and MLB officials have declined to confirm his connection to the logo. But the article cited several of Dior's former colleagues at Sandgren & Murtha, the marketing firm where he worked in the late 1960s, including longtime brand designer Alan Siegel, who said, "I ran the project and I saw him design it. I swear on a stack of Bibles that Jerry Dior designed the damn thing."

Just one problem: The article neglected to mention that there's another person who's taken credit for the MLB logo over the years. That would be James Sherman, an artist best known for illustrating the "Legion of Super-Heroes" comic book in the 1970s, although he's also done a lot of logo design work. For years he's included the MLB logo in his design portfolio, and there's been at least one published interview in which he's claimed authorship of the mark.

The Journal article had already made the case for Dior, so I decided to track down Sherman and hear his side of the story. Much like Dior, he said he had no proof to back up his claim, but he recalled lots of details from the project. "I submitted a number of sketches, based on outlines of Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle, and then they came back to me with a sketch they liked," he said. "It wasn't exactly the same as what I had submitted, but it was close enough to mine that I just assumed the art director at the time was making his own modification, which happens most of the time anyway." He said he'd been paid "about a hundred grand" for the design and didn't mind that he'd never received public credit, since that's how it usually goes for graphic designers.

Then I asked an innocuous question that changed everything:

Major League Baseball
The Major League Baseball logo is one of the most famous images in sports.

Uni Watch: Just out of curiosity, how old are you?

James Sherman: Sixty.

UW: Wow, so you were just 20 years old when you designed the logo.

JS: No, I had to be at least 30.

UW: But the logo was designed in 1968. It had to be, because it debuted in the 1969 season. It was worn on every major league uniform that year.

JS: Really? Then I didn't do it. I couldn't have. Are you sure about this?

To show Sherman what I meant, I e-mailed him a few images from 1969, including the cover of the Mets' yearbook (note the MLB logo at lower-right) and photos showing players wearing the logo on their sleeves or elsewhere. He called me back a few minutes later.

"That's not my logo, and I was totally unaware that it existed," he said. "The logo I created was very similar, but I designed it in the early 1980s. All I can say is that I was so sports-unaware that I didn't know about the earlier logo. I feel like a total idiot now that I didn't know about it. I'm flabbergasted."

He's not the only one. Although there are still some gaps in the story, this is apparently what happened: In the early 1980s, Sherman was hired to create a logo for the American League. He submitted something very similar to the silhouetted batter, which he hadn't seen before (it had a much lower profile back then, and Sherman wasn't a particularly big sports fan). As the MLB logo has become more and more prominent in recent years, he's proudly taken credit for it, not realizing that it was actually designed by someone else more than a decade earlier.

All of which raises a new mystery: What happened to the logo Sherman designed? Was it really so similar to the familiar MLB mark? If so, why would MLB pay him a hundred grand -- or even a hundred cents -- for a design so similar to something they already had?

Those questions are still unanswered, although an MLB spokesman is checking to see if there are any records of Sherman's work. Meanwhile, Sherman is doing his best to set the record straight. He's updated his portfolio and is trying to correct any published accounts that tie him to the MLB logo. He's also sought out Dior ("We had a pleasant, quite amiable conversation"), who says he has no hard feelings.

But of course none of this proves that Dior designed the logo -- it simply means Sherman didn't design it. You'd think the MLB folks could resolve all of this just by looking in a file or something, but apparently it isn't that simple. In the Wall Street Journal article, MLB spokesman Matt Bourne said MLB was "researching the history of the silhouetted batter in connection with its 40th anniversary" -- a maddeningly unsatisfying response, especially for an industry as history- and records-obsessed as baseball. Like, seriously, how much "researching" do you need to do for something like this? It's not as though 1968 is ancient history.

But when I followed up with Bourne earlier this week, he went further: "We know Sandgren & Murtha was the company that created the silhouetted batter, and we know Mr. Dior was a designer for that company. What's harder to ascertain, and what we're in the process of researching, is whether Mr. Dior is the person who created the design."

That last bit sounds almost like a formality, given that several of Dior's Sandgren & Murtha colleagues already vouched for him in the Journal article. And when I contacted Dior myself, he produced a letter of support from his former project manager. Personally, I'm convinced: Jerry Dior is the guy who created the logo.

Dior doesn't want money or additional compensation for the logo -- it was a standard work-for-hire job, and MLB doesn't owe him anything. But after seeing his design become an internationally recognized icon, he'd like to be acknowledged as its creator. Here's an interview I conducted with him a few days ago, in which he dispelled some myths and shared some surprising details regarding one of the sports world's most perfectly realized designs:

Uni Watch: Prior to getting the baseball logo assignment, what sort of work did you specialize in?

Jerry Dior: I was a graphic designer and illustrator.

UW: What sorts of clients did you typically have?

JD: It was mostly packaging for Kellogg's, Nabisco, some pharmaceutical companies. Stuff like that.

UW: How did you come to get the Major League Baseball logo assignment?

Jerry Dior
Here's Jerry Dior, posing next to the logo he created.

JD: It just came into the marketing office I was working at, Sandgren & Murtha, and I was asked to work on it.

UW: So it was basically just another client.

JD: Yes.

UW: Were you already a big baseball fan at the time?

JD: Oh, yeah. Well, I'd been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Then when they left, I kind of stopped following it. And then the Mets came along and I picked up on them, although I was never as enthusiastic about them. But I always loved baseball. Now I'm a Yankees fan.

UW: What sort of thought process did you go through at the outset of the project? Did you know right away that you'd use a silhouetted image?

JD: No, it just came about.

UW: Did you know from the start that you wanted to show a human figure, instead of just type or other graphics?

JD: No, I just went through some magazines and tried to figure out some ideas. I really don't know how the process worked -- I just did it, y'know? It was fast. I think I spent just an afternoon on it.

UW [incredulous]: The whole thing took one afternoon?

JD: Yeah.

UW: Did you do any developmental designs or sketches along the way?

JD: I did a few, yeah, but I can't remember what they were. I know I did a few versions on the same sheet we presented -- different colors and things like that. I think I started with blue and green, and then I switched to red, white, and blue because it was the national pastime.

UW: Did you also design the type that appeared underneath the logo?

JD: In Helvetica, right. But really, I never thought much about any of it until I saw the Mets wearing the logo as a sleeve patch in the 1969 World Series.

UW: But every team had worn that patch through the entire 1969 season. Hadn't you noticed that before the World Series?

JD: I did, yeah, but I didn't really think much about it until the World Series. You have to remember, baseball wasn't televised as much back then as it is now.

UW: Did Major League Baseball accept the logo pretty much as you designed it, or did they ask you to make adjustments?

JD: Nope, no adjustments. I cleaned it up and that was it.

UW: What do you mean "cleaned it up"?

JD: You tighten it up so it can be reproduced. What I had originally created was just a Magic Marker sketch.

UW [incredulous again]: The original version that you created in one afternoon, and that was presented to Major League Baseball, was rendered in Magic Marker?

JD: Right.

UW: Do you have any sketches or files from the project?

JD: No, I don't.

UW: One of the neatest things about the logo is that the batter can be viewed as being either right-handed or left-handed, depending on the viewer's perspective. Was that intentional?

JD: That was the idea -- he could [be] right or left, white or black, anything.

UW: Several people over the years have speculated that the silhouetted batter is Harmon Killebrew.

JD: No, that's not the case. It's not any specific person.

UW: But you must have based the silhouette on a photograph, didn't you?

JD: I did a couple of variations based on photographs I had. It was sort of composite of what I had in front of me.

UW: Do you recall who the players were in those photographs?

JD: No, no way. Again, I never really thought much about it -- I just did it.

UW: The logo is now 40 years old, yet it actually has a much higher presence today than it did back when it debuted, especially in the merchandising realm. Does the design's durability surprise you?

JD: Yes it does, it does. Originally it was just supposed to be for Major League Baseball's 100th anniversary -- a one-year thing. So I did it and just forgot about it. But then it started popping up in lots of places.

UW: More places now than ever.

JD: Yes, I know. I get kind of a thrill out of that.

UW: Do you think it looks dated?

JD: No. I'm not being arrogant or anything, but I really think it's held up. In my field, when you do a package design or something like that, they usually update it after a couple of years. But this has stayed exactly the way I did it.

UW: If you could go back and make any adjustments to the logo, is there anything you'd change?

JD: Maybe a few tweaks.

UW: Such as?

JD: I don't know. Sometimes I think the bat is too thick. And maybe the letters "MLB" should have been part of it. The NBA, the NFL, the NHL, those initials are all very prominent, but people don't say, "MLB." So maybe I should have done that. But I never thought about that when I created the design.

UW: Anything else?

JD: A lot of people make the nose pointy, but it should not be pointy. It's not a pointy nose -- it's more like a Dick Tracy nose, squared off.

UW: So when you sometimes see it rendered with a point, does that bother you?

JD: Yeah. Little things like that.

UW: Major League Baseball routinely changes the colors on the logo depending on the context in which it appears.

JD: Right, I just noticed this year that they made it red and green for the World Series.

UW: Right, but for quite a few years now they've adjusted it depending on which team is wearing it. On the back of an Oakland A's cap, for example, the logo is green and yellow, to match the A's colors.

JD: Really? I hadn't seen that.

UW: What do you think of that?

JD: It's fine. It still comes across even if you change the colors.

UW: In a typical baseball game, the logo appears on every player's jersey, every player's cap, the umpires' jerseys and caps, the bases, the dugout jackets, the catchers' gear, and probably a few others places I'm forgetting. Do you think it's too much?

JD: No. It's not overkill, I don't think so.

UW: Because that's just good branding?

JD: Yeah. Well, maybe it's a little outlandish, a little overkill, but I don't mind it.

UW: So many other sports leagues have copied your approach for their logos. What do you think of that?

JD: I think it's great. Like they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I started something, and I didn't even realize it!

UW: So you don't resent it, like they're stealing your ideas or anything?

JD: Not at all. They're not stealing it -- they're carrying on the idea. I feel good about it.

UW: Does it bother you that Major League Baseball hasn't officially acknowledged you as the logo's designer?

JD: A little bit.

UW: Have you been in touch with them?

JD: Yes. I first contacted them about seven years ago. I was trying to get a plaque or something like that in the Hall of Fame, but they said they couldn't do that. And that's OK. I think they know I'm the designer but they don't want to say so because they think I'd want some kind of money. Someone even told me that Killebrew had looked into getting some money, because of that rumor about the logo being based on him. But like I said, it isn't based on him.

UW: And do you want money?

JD: No. I don't want any money, I don't want any royalties or anything like that. I just want recognition. I would like to get maybe a season ticket for the Mets for my son. And if they want to give me a season ticket for the Yankees, I'll take that.

UW: Have you hired an attorney?

JD: No, and I never will. My wife and I have talked with Major League Baseball, and we're still talking, but that's all.

UW: It's interesting that designers generally don't receive credit or acknowledgment in our society. All those cereal packages and other designs you've done -- your name isn't on any of them. How do you feel about that?

JD: That's just the nature of the game. I take it for what it is. If I win an award, that's public, but otherwise it's private.

UW: And in this case, you'd like something a little more public?

JD: Yes, I really would. Every now and then I tell someone the story about the logo, and their eyes go gaga, and I say to myself, "Hmm, do they really believe me or not?" I want some sort of foothold or something, so I can prove that I really did this.

UW: In the grand scheme of your career, where do you think the baseball logo stacks up?

JD: Number one.

UW: Because it's the most famous, or do you really think it's the best thing you ever did?

JD: Because of its longevity. It holds up today as well as it did back then. I truly feel it's part of baseball. So I added a little something to the game, and I'm very proud of that.

He's got a right to feel proud -- it's a sensational design. And the more you learn about people like Dior and Sherman -- extremely talented creative professionals, most of whose work is done anonymously -- the more ridiculous it seems that designers don't have higher public profiles. Here's hoping this is one case where the designer finally gets the recognition he deserves.

Paul Lukas still remembers how his eight-year-old mind was totally blown when he realized the silhouetted batter could be either right-handed or left-handed. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here. 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.