Tuesday was a very good day.
I arrived in St. Louis at about 9:40 a.m. and headed straight for Liebe Athletic Lettering. This was just a “getting acquainted” visit, so I could get the lay of the land in advance of my video shoot the next day. It turned out to be an amazing facility, with patches, insignia, nameplates, and rolls of twill fabric all over the place.
Liebe is a subcontactor: They don’t manufacture jerseys, but the big manufacturers send their garments here to have numbers, letters, patches, and piping sewn onto them. For a long time they did most of MLB’s on-field jerseys; now, sadly, Majestic has taken all of that work in-house, but Liebe still does a lot of MLB’s retail authentics (including most of Mitchell and Ness’s throwback product), along with game-day and retail work for pretty much every big pro and college sports entity other than MLB. With the lovely Marcia Meyer as my tour guide, I was given complete access to the entire place, which means I was pretty much like the proverbial kid in the candy store. A very small sampling of highlights and observations:
- Although a lot of Liebe’s embroidery is now done by computerized machinery, an astonishing amount of the company’s sewing is still done by hand, primarily by women who look like they’ve been doing it forever. For example, although the main insignia on the Cardinals’ jerseys is done by machine (that’s just a sample piece of cloth, not an actual jersey), the finishing details, like the dark outlining, are all done manually.
- Back in the pre-digital days, the main embroidery work used to be done by hand too. Each logo had a pattern like this — basically a sheet of paper or plastic with lots of pinholes. The patterns would be positioned over a jersey and then a worker would smear some pigment over it, which would pass through the pinholes and replicate the pattern on the fabric. That would be the guide for the sewers to follow.
- Nowadays, sleeve patch designs are digitized and fed into a computer. But as recently as 25 years ago, the designs were blown up to six times their normal size to form a pattern. Every line on these diagrams represents a stitch. I can’t say I fully understood the explanation of the process, but the patterns were used to create rolls of paper with punches in them, like player-piano rolls. The punch rolls were then fed into the machine that would stitch the patch. The patterns, which are gorgeous pieces of artwork in their own right, aren’t used anymore, but they’re still floating around in old files, many of them dating back to the ’50s and ’60s.
- Here’s a nice little detail that nobody would normally know about: The Cardinals’ equipment manager arranged to have special patches sewn onto the shirttails of the Cardinals players and coaches attending the All-Star Game. This is a sample run of the patches.
- I spoke with a heat-press operator who griped about how little material there is to work with when pressing numbers onto football jersey sleeves. Check out his high-tech method of getting the sleeves to stay put on the press mount.
- Nowadays, all the letters, numbers, and logo appliquÃ©s are cut either by a laser cutter or a water jet. But they used to be die-cut, and Liebe still has drawers and drawers full of stamping dies (additional examples here and here). For some reason I found myself particularly charmed by this one, so the next day one of the plant managers used the die-stamper, three pieces of cloth, and a small heat-press to assemble a little Expos logo for me (look at an enlarged version and you can clearly see the cloth edges).
- The company has loads of old job order files. Here‘s an old Rawlings order form for the 1989 Mets. Among other details, note that Lenny Dykstra wanted his sleeves shortened by half an inch, Keith Hernandez’s captain’s “C” was being removed, and lots of players wanted their pant legs to be a bit tighter.
I could go on, but you get the idea — it was basically a smorgasbord, a feast, an orgy of uni-related arcana. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to head downtown to the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, where assistant curator Brian Finch was waiting for me (along with Jeff Scott, who runs the excellent Birdbats site). After gawking at Brian’s World Series ring — which dwarfed the rest of my hand — I had him lead me to the museum. Here’s a sampling of highlights:
- Pretty much every version of the birds on the bat insignia that you can imagine is represented in the museum, including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one (that’s actually replica that was made for an old-timers’ game, not an original 1927 model), this one (note the royal outline on the birds), and this one.
- This is the Cards’ 1956 road jersey — the only year since 1922 that the team hasn’t worn some version of the birds on the bat. But they made up for it by including the super-cool Slugger Bird sleeve patch.
- I especially dug a lot of the outerwear, especially this jacket, this jacket, this jacket, and, although it was hard to see and even harder to photograph, this sweater.
- It’s easy to forget that St. Louis was once a two-team town, so it was nice to see some Browns uniforms (additional pics here, here, and here.
- Did you know Ozzie Smith wrote “Oz” on his batting gloves? I didn’t.
- How awesome is the “Cardinal Organization” logo on this check?
- As you can imagine, I was particularly enthralled by these number-emblazoned stirrups, worn by Pat Crawford in 1934
- The Bowling Hall of Fame is in this same building, and they had some wicked cool shirts, as you can see here, here, here, here, and here.
After crashing for a bit at my hotel, it was off to the Uni Watch party. Small-ish turnout this time, but some very nice folks:
- Here’s Jeff Baxter, who I’d previously met at the Cards HoF, wearing what I believe is an actual game-worn Cards throwback jersey.
- Several people showed up in Blues jerseys, including Jonathan Karberg, J.R. Gain (here’s a rear view), and Mark Richter (rear view), who then did the striptease routine: Underneath his Blues jersey was a Cards jersey, and underneath that was something special that he wore just for me.
- Best attire of the night: Marty Hick and his old-school St. Louis Cardinals necktie. Marty also brought along some incredible show-and-tell materials, but I’m gonna save that for another day.
- To my surprise, two of the Liebe brothers showed up — a super-nice gesture that really impressed me. Here I am with Bill Liebe, whose grandfather founded the company about 80 years ago in his basement.
By 10:30 or so, I was pretty wrung out, so I scooted hotel-ward for some shut-eye. The video shoot the next day went extremely well, although I’m told that it will be boiled down to only three or four minutes after editing — a shame, since we taped so much great material. (I didn’t expect a half-hour feature, but I was hoping we’d clock in somewhere around the eight- to ten-minute range.) Not sure when it will be posted on ESPN.com — maybe as soon as next week, or more likely two weeks after that. I’ll keep you posted.
Membership Update: Scott’s been turning out some killer work, as you can see in the card gallery. We’re now over 250 members, and counting. Can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am over the way this project is evolving and growing — my thanks to all.
Signal Flare: Yo, Jeremiah McElwain — if you’re reading this, please get in touch. Thanks.
Uni Watch News Ticker: How great is my intern? This great: I got home from St. Louis yesterday afternoon and found a big package waiting for me, with a Cleveland return address. Inside was this old NFL serving tray, circa 1971. Wow. Thanks, Vince. … Some serious logo creep upcoming for the WNBA (with thanks to Matt Edwards). … “Looks like the Argentina women’s soccer team, which is competing in the Pan Am games, is wearing the uniforms of their male counterparts,” writes Jonathon Binet. “Why else would they still have the two stars above the AFA crest? The two stars represent the nation’s two [men’s] World Cup wins in 1978 and 1986.” … JR Boucicaut of ModSquadHockey swears that this rendering of the new Sharks logo is legit. Personally, I think it’s an upgrade, if only because the tape goes all around the stick blade (which, as we’ve discussed before, wasn’t the case with the old logo). … Eli Ganias saw this MasterCard ad on the subway. He doesn’t understand it, and neither do I. What exactly is the point being made here — that you become “more than a fan” when you buy a cap with your credit card? … Several readers noted that Bruce Froemming (known, of course, for his tactful repartee) still had the All-Star Game logo patch on the side of his cap during last night’s Tigers/Mariners game.