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Old Jersey : Cooperstown Collection features uniform reproductions designed to evoke memories of baseball’s golden days.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Baseball historian Peter Capolino cares more about players’ uniforms than their batting averages.

“Prior to 1986, I wasn’t a baseball fan at all,” he says. “I enjoy history and reading.”

Then his company, Mitchell & Ness of Philadelphia, began making reproductions of old-time baseball jerseys and jackets. Capolino put in long hours poring over old newspapers, photographs, film clips and magazine articles--anything related to baseball’s early days--to faithfully re-create the old uniforms. Almost by accident, he became a baseball authority.

Capolino will be on hand to talk baseball at a special showing of the Cooperstown Collection of authentic baseball wear from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at Nordstrom, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

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The collection includes jerseys and jackets by Mitchell & Ness, as well as vintage baseball caps by American Needle and sweat shirts and T-shirts by Nutmeg Mills, all designed to evoke memories of baseball’s golden days.

Like it or not, Capolino is a wealth of baseball trivia. For instance, he’ll tell you one of the wildest innovations in baseball uniforms was the baby blue satin jacket worn by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944.

“They had just started playing under the lights and the players wanted the lights to shine off of their uniforms,” he says. “But they perspired so bad in the satin that they retired them after one year.”

A reproduction of the jacket is available at Nordstrom.

Many pieces in the Cooperstown Collection carry a thread of baseball history. The 1917 Chicago White Sox jersey has an American flag patch on its sleeve, a symbol of Sox patriotism during World War I. The 1945 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey is the last to display the word “Brooklyn.” The 1921 New York Yankees cap was originally worn when the team went 98-55 and posted a slugging percentage above .450.

Of the more than 400 designs made by Mitchell & Ness, the three most popular are Mickey Mantle’s 1951 New York Yankees rookie shirt, Ted Williams’ 1939 Boston Red Sox shirt and Willie Mays’ 1951 New York Giants jersey.

Capolino’s interest in old-time baseball uniforms began in 1985 when a customer asked Mitchell & Ness, then a school team uniform manufacturer and sporting goods dealer, to repair his tattered 1949 St. Louis Browns jersey and a 1960 Pirates vest.

That sparked an idea: If people were so enamored with these original jerseys, which sell for $25,000 to $250,000, perhaps there was a market for replicas. But how to reproduce the old jerseys accurately?

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Capolino investigated, and found a company that had made the old major league uniforms was still in business. Maple Manufacturing even had the original patterns and wool flannel dating back to the 1930s.

He made a sample batch of jerseys that sold out almost overnight. The second batch went almost as fast.

Capolino had hit upon customers’ nostalgic longing for the boys of summer, in the days before baseball became big business.

“People have a romantic affection for the past, especially when it comes to baseball,” he says. “Players in the past were perceived as better. They played for the love of the game more than for the money. They were more loyal to their hometown and stayed with one team much longer. There’s a greater affection for players in the ‘30s through ‘60s than for players in the ‘70s through ‘90s.”

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A woman in her 40s stops by Nordstrom’s Cooperstown display and admires the rack of 1927 New York Yankees jackets. The jackets are navy with a synthetic fur lining, gray suede sleeves and the NY logo on the front.

“We all wore them when we were in high school and our boyfriends gave us their lettermen jackets,” she says. “So why shouldn’t we have one now?”

Still, Capolino estimates that 90% of his customers are men who know the stats and the history of the game.

“We constantly get people whose fathers or grandfathers played for a major league club,” he says. “Or you get strong fans of a player in the past and they’re excited to see his jersey.”

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Capolino once presented George Bush with his 1948 Yale University varsity baseball shirt.

“He looked at it like he was a little kid and said, ‘Oh, is my No. 2 on the back?’ ”

Some wearers are fans of fashion, not baseball.

Mitchell & Ness’s vintage jerseys sell at Fred Segal on trendy Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Capolino says they’re worn by “upscale Hollywood types.” Spike Lee, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg have all been seen sporting vintage jerseys.

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Capolino credits the fashion industry with fostering the trend.

“Many fashion designers, like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, have been pushing nostalgia. They’re putting more vintage fashion into their look,” he says. Some designers are even giving their oversized shirts and jackets the look of baseball uniforms.

Mitchell & Ness takes pains to make sure the replicas are identical to the originals. Just as in the old days, they make the jerseys out of wool instead of the double-knits used since the ‘70s. They hunt down mills to supply the wool and companies to make the intricate lettering and elaborate team emblems.

“People always ask why are these shirts so expensive? An L.A. Dodgers Darryl Strawberry shirt today costs around $120. If you want a (reproduction of a) 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers shirt, it would run $185,” Capolino says. “The difference is the domestic wool, and the domestic labor in doing the lettering.”

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The jerseys sell for about $175 to $200 and the jackets for about $325. The chief difference between the new uniforms and the originals is the weight of the wool.

“I cheat on the cloth. I make it out of 100% wool, but it’s lighter than the original. If I made it the old way, you’d have to go up to Alaska on a winter evening to wear it.”

To research the uniforms, Capolino relies on a nearby Philadelphia periodicals store that carries baseball magazines from the 1920s to the present.

“I scan those magazines extensively,” he says. His work has been hampered by the lack of color pictures in the 1920s and ‘30s publications. Fortunately, newspaper reporters at the time would write flowery descriptions of the players as they arrived on the field opening day. In addition, manufacturers’ catalogues often described the color and fabric content of the uniform.

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Occasionally, someone sends in a vintage uniform for repairs. The company copies it, takes the specifications and makes a replica.

In the course of his research, Capolino gained a reputation as a baseball historian--which he’s not sure he deserves.

“I’m probably the least knowledgeable person in my company when it comes to baseball,” he says.

But he does know fashion.

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“When I found out that in 1903 the New York Yankees wore an all-black uniform, my first thought was ‘The New York market will go crazy.’

“I thought how great the black would look in merino wool and the NY logo would sort of look like DKNY.”


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