We all know about the Negro Leagues. But what you might not know about — or at least I didn’t until reader Jordan Woodson recently brought it to my attention, although it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that everyone else was already clued in — is the Black Fives, a term that loosely and collectively refers to early all-black basketball teams between 1900 and 1940.
We don’t think too much about how basketball was segregated in those days, in part because even white basketball leagues were pretty ragtag and small-time back then (and maybe in part, let’s be honest, because the game is so overwhelmingly black today), but now a company called Black Fives is documenting and celebrating — which means, of course, merchandising — the history of this overlooked chapter in sports history.
And man, they’ve got some awesome logos and uni designs to work with. It makes for some really nice merch, much of which the company has produced in partnership with Nike. I love the two-tone design here, the classicism here, and the simplicity here and here (“IPC” stood for — get this — Independent Pleasure Club, a team that wore some killer accessories). They’ve got some nice long-sleevers and jackets, too. They even appear to have made a T-shirt just for me.
The only thing I don’t get: the line of “retro” footwear that Nike created to go along with the apparel. I mean, what exactly is retro about this? Okay, I can see they tried a little harder here, but you don’t have to hate the swoosh as much as I do to say that it just doesn’t work for a collection that’s supposed to evoke the 1920s. Kinda feels like they were doing all the shirts and jackets and just said, “Let’s do a sneaker line too, because we can.” An unfortunate lurch onto the wrong side of the “Is it good or is it stupid?” divide.
While writing this entry yesterday, I sent a note to Uni Watch design director Scott M.X. Turner, who I figured would know a lot more about Black Fives than I did. And sure enough, just before I went to bed last night, he sent this:
Black Fives was formed by Claude Johnson, an African-American entrepreneur during the hip-hop-loves-throwbacks rage a few years ago. He researched a lot of predominantly black colleges and black semi-pro basketball teams, then put out jerseys, fashion coats, and caps. That’s the good part. The bad part is that the jerseys, although all based on teams from before World War II, were all made of modern synthetics and sized like all the other maternity-dress jerseys that rappers like to wear.
I always liked what he tried to do — expose people to the history of pre-WWII black basketball. But I thought his clothing sucked. It always pains me to see history highjacked for fashion profits. I know the argument — if we can interest kids in their history by spoon-feeding them clothing, that’s a positive step. The Negro League Museum in Kansas City is more than happy to license crud, and I mean CRUD, with all sorts of made-up logos, jerseys, jackets, and caps. It’s pretty Faustian, if you ask me.
Also, kind of condescending. It assumes that authentic, fairly priced, historical apparel is beyond the intellectual and cultural grasp of black consumers who might be interested in black sports history that goes back further than Michael Jordan.
Hence, on the one hand, Black Fives is an interesting and positive thing. On the other, it’s just the latest cynical manipulation of history for profit.
Now, keep in mind that Scott actually works in the throwback uniform industry. This means his opinions are pretty authoritative, but it also means his standards may be a bit tougher than everyone else’s. Personally, I’m really disappointed to hear that Black Fives uses synthetic fabric, and I did notice that the size availability runs heavily toward the XXXL end of the spectrum, but I almost never buy throwback apparel anyway, so none of that is a make-or-break issue for me. For now, I’m happy to have learned a bit more about a historical juncture that I hadn’t known much about.
Uni Watch News Ticker: An inside source reports that this will be the Bengals’ 40th-anniversary logo (which, among other things, indicates that teams still can’t grasp the difference between a 40th anniversary and 40th season — but then that’s nothing new for this particular team). … This book looks worthwhile (as spotted by Eric Stangel). … Third paragraph of this page confirms that the Washginton Capitals will definitely be switching to red, white, and blue next season. … Reprinted from Monday’s comments: The annual spring training story about the utility guy with a shitload of gloves. … P.J. Mallardi notes that Tennessee’s men and women are both wearing VOLScholar patches (awarded to players who achieved a 3.0 GPA the previous semester). … Jeremy Brahm appears to have found a photo of the world’s longest bat. … Also from Jeremy: Lots of interesting tidbits from the Japanese Invitational High School Tournament, including low-rider sock stripes, pink socks, a very messed-up uni number (Update: See today’s comment #21 for lots more info on this), a catcher who’s somehow keeping his mask in his back pocket, serious brim foldage, and a macron (that’s the overbar above the O). The trickiest one for me is this one — love the stripes, hate the color scheme. … Fascinating article here about Joe Rogers, a college hockey goalie who wears a special catching mitt because the fingers on his right hand didn’t grow properly. … And then there’s the other end of that spectrum. … Wise guy. … Ria Cortesio, a female ump who works in the minors, will work tomorrow’s Cubs/Dbacks game (making her the first woman to ump a spring training game since Pam Postema). According to this article, Cortesio originally wore No. 5, because she was professional baseball’s fifth female ump, but more recently she’s worn No. 15.