Last month I wrote an obituary/tribute for Marc Okkonen (that’s him at right, throwing out the first pitch at the 2016 home opener of his hometown Muskegon Clippers; click to enlarge), whose pioneering research into baseball uniform history helped make Uni Watch possible. As I wrote at the end of that obit, I regret that I never got to meet or even communicate with Okkonen. And in the days following the publication of that obit, it troubled me that I had so little sense of this person who’d been such a big influence on Uni Watch and the larger uni-verse.
So today we kick off the Okkonen Files, which I envision as a short-ish series of entries that will give us some greater insights into this giant of uniform research. I decided to start by interviewing my longtime friend Tom Shieber, senior curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame, who built the Dressed to the Nines online uniform exhibit, including a uniform database based on Okkonen’s mock-ups and drawings, that has appeared on the Hall’s website since 2003.
Some quick background on Tom, just to provide some context for the interview that follows: He has a long-running blog called Baseball Researcher, which solves baseball photo mysteries and helps document the sport’s early visual history, and he was a prominent photo researcher in the SABR community well before he started working at the Hall in 1998. (In his pre-Hall days, he worked as an astronomer!)
Tom and I spoke by phone a few weeks ago, shortly after Okkonen died. Here’s our conversation.
Uni Watch: When did you become aware of Marc’s book on baseball uniforms, and what sort of effect did it have on you?
Tom Shieber [that’s him at left]: The first time I became aware of it was actually before it was published. This was before I started working at the Hall of Fame, but I visited there — I don’t know the exact year, but it was after I graduated from college and before the book came out, so somewhere from 1987 to ’90. Anyway, I went out there and met with Pat Kelly, who was the director of the Hall’s photo department at the time. She’s now retired.
Anyway, I took a look at the photo department, and on Pat’s desk I saw these drawings — Marc’s drawings, the same ones that ended up in the book. I said, “Hey, what’s that?” And she said, “Oh, it’s this guy who’s making these drawings of every baseball uniform of the 20th century.” And, I mean, my jaw dropped! And I said, “How do I get these?” She said, “Well, you can’t, but he’s hoping to have a book published.”
And I said, “Who is this guy?” So she told me about Marc. I was a member of SABR at the time, and so was Marc, so I contacted him that way. And that’s how I found out about him — through the Hall of Fame, but before I worked for the Hall of Fame.
UW: When you wrote to him, did he respond?
TS: He did, yeah.
UW: So you were communicating with him even before the book came out.
TS: I think so, yeah, but just briefly. But then once the book came out and I started using it as a resource — because I was already doing picture research at that time — I would have questions, because sometimes I’d have a photo that didn’t match up with what was shown in the book or whatever. And often it was a little tweak that he needed to make or something like that, and other times it was a mistake that I had made in dating the photo. But anyway, we were corresponding about how his work helped me, and how I could maybe help him as well. It was definitely give and take.
And it was very clear early on, he’d make a point and then say, “Here’s why,” and it was obvious that he was doing his research really well.
UW: And were you conducting these back-and-forths via email, or regular mail..?
TS: I’m pretty sure at that point that it would have been U.S. Mail.
UW: I assume you eventually met him in person, right?
TS: I think the first time I met him was at the SABR convention in St. Louis, which was in ’92.
UW: Was that exciting for you? Was he like a hero of yours by that point?
TS [laughing]: I wouldn’t call him a hero, but I knew he was a kindred spirit, and I really wanted to get to know him because I knew he had so much information that was going to be really, really helpful.
UW: And was he friendly and receptive?
TS: Relatively friendly and receptive. The reason I say “relatively” is that I found he could be a little curmudgeonly. I think that’s just the way he was. Sometimes he could be a little abrupt in the way he spoke. But I realized after a little while, “Oh, that’s not about me. It’s just the way he is.”
I remember one time I was asking him something about belt loops, and how they were shown in the book, and he said, “You know, don’t put too much stock in the belt loops. I kinda gave up on that after a while.” And he said a bit gruffly, so the impression was sort of like, “Yeah, you’re spending too much time looking at these belt loops.” [Laughs.] Whereas I was thinking, you know, belt loops could be the secret to unlocking the mystery of a particular photo. Which I still believe to be true!
UW: When did you start working at the Hall? And then once you were there, how did you get the idea to create the “Dressed to the Nines” section on the Hall of Fame’s website — not just the uniform database, but the full “Dressed to the Nines” project?
TS: I started working at the Hall of Fame in ’98. I was hired to do the website, not to be a curator. And I wanted to do “Dressed to the Nines” from the minute I was working here, but it wasn’t necessarily something I could jump right on. But as I was doing the website, I learned more about .asp scripting, which allows you to access a database. And I thought, “Ooh, I know what I can do with this!” If I had all of his drawings separated out, with data that said, “This is 1942 St. Louis National League,” I could massage it any way I wanted.
Actually, the real grand scheme, which I never did implement, but which I could still do, was to add brief descriptors of the uniforms — “solid stockings” or “piping on sleeve,” or whatever. And then you could search on those descriptors and see all the uniforms in a given time period with solid stockings. And you can see immediately how that would be nice.
UW: So creating an online uniform database — and basing that database on Marc’s drawings — was your plan all along.
TS: Absolutely. I know I wanted to do this for three main reasons. First, we used to have a physical exhibit on uniforms at the Hall, and then we took it down. So I thought we could do a really good job of having a web exhibit. Second, and this is not news to you, but I really like uniforms, and I thought it would be fun to work on. And third, I knew Marc and I knew he was a generous researcher, so I thought he would be willing to share his drawings. I would not have done this project if not for all three of those things. They were all factors.
UW: So how did you broach the idea with Marc?
TS: After I got the okay from my boss, I went to Marc and said, “Hey, would you be willing to allow us to do this?” And he said yes. Really, he was very generous about it.
UW: Can you still continue to use his artwork even after his death?
TS: Yes. And you know, he was done with the database. In fact, he was really done with the whole uniform thing. If we discovered an error or something that wasn’t quite right — and you brought some of those to my attention yourself, and we’ve also gotten a lot of changes as a result of Todd [Radom]’s research — I’d email him and explain my reasons for why there should be a change, and he always said, “That sounds good, that’s fine.” And then one time, in his sort of curmudgeonly way, he wrote back, “You know, don’t bother me with these anymore. You’re good to go.” We continued to correspond about other things, but when it came to tweaking things on his drawings, he was done. He’d moved on.
UW: We’re used to seeing his little mannequin mock-ups very small, either in the book or on Dressed to the Nines. How big were the originals?
TS: Each one fit perfectly on an 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper. The mannequin man himself is about 10.5 inches high and five inches wide, or something like that. My understanding of the process is that he made these big guys. Then his publisher shot them and made them smaller, and they’d show proofs to him for his approval, and he’d maybe make a note here or there. [For photo that follows, and all subsequent photos, you can click to enlarge. All photos taken by Tom Shieber and provided courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. — PL]
UW: In your database, you can really see the edges of each mannequin cutout. Did he send you those individual cutouts, or scans of them, or what?
TS: What I was hoping to get was a cutout pasted to a page, or just the cutout by itself. But what he sent to me was almost as if someone had ripped out a page from the book — I think these were the mechanicals, the camera-ready paste-ups, that were sent to the printer to create the book. So here’s the National League, 1949; here’s the American League, 1950; and so on.
So I had to scan in each page, then I returned the pages to him, and then I had the gruntwork of “cutting up” each scan into the individual teams. Like if I was scanning the page for the National League’s 1949 uniforms, I’d have to isolate the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cardinals, and so on. Then I had to name each scan and do a little Photoshopping to clean them up a bit.
But what’s important to know, and I always tell this to people, is that he did two editions of his drawings — one for the hardcover edition of the book, and that an updated one, with corrections, for the second paperback edition. He was preparing a third edition, with even more updates and corrections — many corrections — and my understanding is that he couldn’t get the publisher to agree to do another edition of the book. So when the online exhibit debuted in 2003, what we basically had was the third, updated edition, which had never been published. And we’ve continued to update it, so in a sense this is the ever-changing fourth edition of a book that only had two editions.
So I always encourage people to consult our website, not just the books. Because the edition that’s online is the most accurate and up-to-date. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s the best version available.
UW: So you never had the original drawings. Do you know what happened to them?
TS: He donated the ones for the Federal League, along with some early sketches. I’ve gotta assume he kept the rest of them, maybe in storage or something. Also, there’s his research — tons of newspaper clippings, which he would paste next to his drawings to confirm why he drew what he drew.
UW: Do you know what materials or media he used? Like, were the cutouts on paper or cardstock? Did he used colored pencils or markers? Paint? Did he do the typography by hand?
TS: That’s a great question that never crossed my mind. I don’t know. But I can’t believe it’s pencil. And Marc wasn’t a big computer guy, so I don’t think it’s digital. But he was a trained graphic artist, which really shows up in his Baseball Memories books, where he provides these sort of three-dimensional birds-eye views of ballparks, and you could see his draftsmanship was fantastic. It’s this really beautiful work that he just bangs out. He was a natural.
UW: That pose of the faceless mannequin player with a hand on his hip and a bat resting on his shoulder is so familiar to us now. Do you know if he ever considered a different template? Did you ever see any early prototypes or developmental drawings? During that early trip to the Hall when you met with Pat and saw those drawings on her desk, did the drawings show that same pose, or a different pose?
TS: My recollection is that it was the same. And you know, at one point I asked Marc about the mannequin, because one of the downsides — and I should say that it’s a wonderful, practical design — but it does cover up the right sleeve.
UW: Yes, that’s been a frustration for me many times.
TS: I’m sure it has. Me too! And at one point I asked him about it, and he basically said — and this isn’t an exact quote — he said it was unintentional but it was a happy circumstance, because it meant he didn’t have to worry about what was on the right sleeve. So there was one less thing to research.
One subtle thing — and I think you called this out in your obituary for Marc — is that starting in 1947, he starts changing the skin tone of the mannequins. And he doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but I think that was such a wonderful, thoughtful thing. I mean, the book isn’t about integration.
UW: No, but he wanted it to reflect what people saw when they looked at baseball. Just like he added stripes to the shoes in 1970s, which was when players started wearing Nike and Puma. I always liked that touch as well.
TS: True, but shoes are part of what he was documenting in terms of uniforms — skin color isn’t. But he still thought it was important, and I thought that was wonderful. And it was also wonderful that he didn’t make a big deal out of it — he just did it.
UW: You’ve mentioned that he could be curmudgeonly. What else can you tell me about the kind of person he was? I feel like he’s this tremendously important figure in the corner of the world that I inhabit, but I have almost zero sense of him as a person. Can you give me any insights?
TS: He was very kind — nice guy. Like I said, he could be abrupt, but it was nothing personal. He had these things that he was into, these various obsessions, and we all benefit from that. And of course many of us have our own obsessions, so we can relate.
UW: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
TS: And the thing is, lots of people have obsessions that other people might care about or find useful or whatever, but they don’t share it. And they don’t share it maybe because they think nobody else would care, or they want to hoard it. But Marc chose to share his. I don’t think he had a clue how useful it was going to end up being.
UW: That was my next question actually. Was he aware of how important he was to the uniform world, and was he proud of that?
TS: I think he was aware, but I don’t think that was his intention at the beginning. He just thought it was a good thing to do.
Let me give you a little sidebar: When I was chair of the pictorial history committee at SABR, we came up with a project where we wanted to find photos of every major league player who’d played 10 games or fewer from 1900 to 1950. We figured anything before the turn of the century would be too difficult — this was in 1995, so the internet wasn’t what it is today — and anything after 1950 would be easy enough because of Topps cards or whatever. But the first half of the 20th century, that seemed like something that was a real research challenge, but doable. And 10 games or fewer, we called them “cup of coffee guys.”
And the only one who really took up the challenge was Marc. He just ran with it. There were, I think, about 2,000 guys who fit this “cup of coffee” definition, and he got almost all of them. And he always wanted to get it published — not for money, and I don’t think it was an ego thing. He just thought it’d be a damn shame if people couldn’t see this. And of course no publisher was interested in that, so SABR eventually published it online. [It’s available only to SABR members. — PL] But that’s the kind of researcher he was. He wanted to do it, he worked independently, and he wanted to get it out there.
UW: By the time you encountered him and he was doing all of this, was he retired from his regular career?
TS: I’m pretty sure he was, but I’m not 100% sure. He might have been doing some independent work on the side.
UW: You mentioned that he was a graphic artist, but do you know more about the kind of work he did, or what sorts of clients he had? Have you seen examples of his commercial work? [The New York Times’s obituary for Okkonen repeatedly refers to him as a “commercial artist” but offers no other details about his career. — PL]
TS: I know zero about his professional career. Zero. I always wanted to see some of his other work, his non-baseball work, but I never did. I suppose I should try and research that.
UW: As I mentioned in my obituary, I wrote to Marc several times over the years to tell him how important his work was to me — in fact, I think you’re the one who gave me his email address some years back — but he never wrote back. Does that seem out of character to you? Do you know if he resented Uni Watch in some way?
TS: I have no idea why he didn’t write back. He was pretty good about that kind of thing. And when he wanted to stop talking about something, he’d just say he was done with that. So when I saw that, about how he didn’t write back to you, I was totally floored. I don’t think he ever mentioned Uni Watch. I can’t believe that he would have felt resentful. If anything, he would’ve been flattered, especially with all the positive things you said about his work.
UW: Yeah. I feel bad that I never got to connect with him, because he’s a genuine influence on my life and career.
TS: Mine as well, mine as well.
UW: Tom, I think that’s all I have in terms of questions. Anything you want to add?
TS: I think I feel the same way you do in terms of Marc being incredibly influential. When I first saw those drawings, it was so exciting. He facilitated so much great research, that’s the main thing. And thankful for it literally every single day because I use those drawings, and the things that came out of them, all the time. And what we see on the field today is affected by Marc’s work — first, obviously, when teams wear throwbacks, but also just with their basic uniforms, because teams look back at history, and Marc made that history available to them.
Thanks so much to Tom for sharing his recollections. Future installments of the Okkonen Files will feature recollections from other people who knew and worked with Marc, including handwritten letters that he wrote to some Uni Watch readers. If you had any interactions with Marc over the years and want to participate in this project, feel free to be in touch. Thanks.
One last thing: For all these years, I’ve never been sure about the pronunciation of Marc’s last name, and Tom told me he wasn’t 100% certain either. The New York Times obit says it was OH-ken-en, so now we know.
Wardrobe malfunctions: Someone put together a supercut of players mistakenly wearing the wrong uniforms. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s a nice assortment and the video quality is very good. A fun way to spend five minutes, if you’re so inclined.
(Big thanks to Mike Chamernik for sending this one along.)
Membership update: Most
Uni Watch Membership Club enrollees have very specific reasons for the numbers they’ve chosen for their membership cards, and I would never tell anyone to choose a different number than the one they want. But damn, sometimes I wish they’d chosen a different number.
Take Clinton Doggett’s card, for example, which is based on the late-1950s Washington Senators. You can see more of those beautiful 3D uni numbers here and here. And as you look at them, it’s clear that the 7 is least interesting numeral of the bunch — and Clinton has two of those 7s on his card! I don’t mean to disparage his number choice or his card (as usual, card designer Scott M.X. Turner did a great job with it), but I can’t help but wish there were some other numerals involved!
Anyway: Clinton’s card is one of several that have been added to the membership card gallery (which is now up to 2,239 cards!).
Ordering a membership card is a good way to support Uni Watch (which, quite frankly, could use your support these days). And remember, a Uni Watch membership card entitles you to a 15% discount on any of the merchandise in our Teespring shop and our Naming Wrongs shop. (If you’re an existing member and would like to have the discount code, email me.) As always, you can sign up for your own custom-designed card here, you can see all the cards we’ve designed so far here, and you can see how we produce the cards here.
Mailboxes reminder: In case you missed it yesterday, I have a new article up on Gizmodo about mailbox design.
This one was really enjoyable to work on, and people seem to like how it turned out. I encourage you to check it out here.
By Lloyd Alaban
Baseball News: Indians P Adam Cimber debuted yet another sock style last night on the mound. Here’s an updated tracker of all the socks he’s worn so far this season courtesy Jason Whitt. … Here are the ticket designs for All-Star Weekend in Cleveland (from Nick Greenawalt). … Reds OF Jesse Winker wore teammate Eugenio Suarez’s wristbands last night (from Joe Blevins). … New DJ-themed DJ Springer bobblehead for the Astros (from Ignacio Salazar). … Yankees OF Cameron Maybin has been derided on social media for wearing his socks too high, so he responded with this gif on Twitter (from Zeke Perez Jr.). … The Erie SeaWolves, Double-A affiliate of the Tigers, played as the Piñatas last night (from James Hoppe). … Devin Meyer found this collection of 1980s-era MLB stickers. … Here are the tickets to the Midwest League All-Star Game, along with the uniforms for the East team (from Grayson Woods). … Yesterday’s Auburn/Louisville CWS game was flag-desecration vs. GI Joke. … The Rangers will retire Michael Young’s No. 10 in a ceremony on Aug. 31 (from Mike Chamernik). … Here are the fronts and backs of the North team’s jerseys for the Carolina League (High-A) All-Star Game in Frederick, Md. Note the sublimated team logos on jersey (from Nelson Warwick). … Center Point-Urbana High School in Center Point, Iowa, played a white jersey vs. white vest game against North Linn (from Chris Taylor). … A’s bench coach Ryan Christenson has been filling out the dugout lineup card with graffiti-style lettering for at least the past two games (from Jakob Fox). … Also from Jakob: A’s OF Stephen Piscotty underwent surgery last week to remove a melanoma from his right ear and is now wearing a double-flapped batting helmet, but with no padding in the right flap.
Football News: The 49ers’ season ticket page is using outdated Panthers and Browns logos (from Joey Harvey). … New uniforms for the University of South Florida (from multiple readers). … Kary Klismet went to the memorial to honor late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen yesterday. The memorial included a veritable museum of memorabilia honoring Bowlen’s three-plus decades as owner of the team. Among the many uni-notable items were the fur coat he wore on the sideline of the 1986 AFC Championship Game, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot helmet painted like a Broncos helmet, and an autographed John Elway knee brace. There are more photos here. … The Bears recently held an equipment surplus sale for charity. Buyers were limited to five minutes to shop (from Gilbert Lee).
Basketball News: WNBA players are looking increasingly androgynous (NYT link), as the league expands the parameters of how female athletes can look. Key quote: “As recently as 2016, the WNBA had fashion, hair, and makeup classes for its rookie players. In 2008, nearly a third of the league’s two-day rookie orientation was dedicated to makeup and fashion tips.” … Possible leak of Australia men’s national team’s jersey from Sixers PG/F Ben Simmons (from James Moton).
Soccer News: The following items, unless otherwise noted, are from Josh Hinton: A source says Argentina’s away kit will be neither blue nor black — their traditional away kit colors — for next year’s Copa America. … Liverpool’s third shirt has leaked. … Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv released new home, away, and third shirts. … German third-tier club Zwickau released new home, away, and third shirts. … New Australian A-League team Western United FC has revealed their inaugural home and away shirts. … New kits for Scottish club Partick Thistle. The away shirt is inspired by the LGBTQ+ movement and has rainbow trim (from Ed Zelaski). … Also from Ed: New home shirts for newly-promoted German 3. Liga side Chemnitzer FC. … USWNT LB Crystal Dunn recently got married but will be keeping her maiden name as her NOB (from our own Jamie Rathjen). … While the Italian women’s soccer team hasn’t worn stars above the team’s crest during World Cup matches (which signify the men’s World Cup titles), they have been wearing the stars over the crest for training. … English Championship club Sheffield Wednesday could be forced to stop using their motto because a fan trademarked it for himself (from Patrick Barnett). … Las Vegas Lights FC will wear USMNT 1994 “denim” throwbacks on July 4 (from David Hanson).
Grab Bag: What do years and years of press passes to sports events look like? Chris Grosse shows us his collection. … Logo creep on the Rutgers mascot’s jersey (from @Danotheman0). … Here’s a Burger King exec explaining why the company’s uniforms look the way they do. … China has imprisoned a million Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority. China alleges they are “students” in “training schools,” where they wear “uniforms” that appear to be knockoff Adidas clothing (from Lucan Denfield). … New driver’s license design for the state of Indiana (from @tasty_magic).
Happy Juneteenth! I look forward to seeing all the great Juneteenth uniforms out there, right? — Paul