PHILADELPHIA — Where others saw useless old, heavy wool flannel, Peter Capolino found a market that stirred long-lost emotions of baseball fans: nostalgic baseball jerseys.
Capolino tapped more than a market. He opened a window to fans' past. One look at the replica 1951 New York Giants shirt with a No. 24 on the back and Willie Mays is a rookie again.
The No. 6 on the back of the shirt with the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals design--with two birds perched on a black bat, not the current gold one, across the front--evokes Stan Musial terrorizing pitchers in a season in which he won Most Valuable Player honors.
"There's something there that I did not intend to have this psychological grip on my customers," the 42-year-old sporting goods dealer said. "But I've noticed it.
"I could increase the price in front of them and they'd beg for the shirt."
The baggy shirts are priced from $100 to $175, governed by how much work they require. Capolino claims to have sold nearly 1,000 of the shirts and has his hands full meeting the demand since Sports Illustrated magazine published a full-page story about him this summer. He's also begun selling replica warmup jackets.
Motioning to the dozen or so varieties he had on display last week, he noted the effect of the publicity on his downtown store, Mitchell & Ness Sporting Goods.
"Sports Illustrated wiped me out," Capolino said, not complaining. He noted orders from Canada, Australia, England, Sweden and South Africa, not to mention those from around the United States. "Normally, I have about 67 different models."
By November he expects to catch up, just before running out of the flannel he found 2 1/2 years ago while visiting a manufacturer, who had no use for the stuff once baseball teams at all levels demanded lighter, cooler fabrics.
Nostalgic baseball hats were selling well, so he decided to try out jerseys--six replicas each of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates with Bill Mazeroski's No. 9, the 1949 St. Louis Browns with Roy Sievers' No. 15, and Mays' 1951 Giants jersey.
"They sold out instantly," he said. "From those, I went on to other players."
Frank Palma, a Morristown, N.J., businessman, says he has bought more than a dozen of Capolino's replicas.
"I'm Stan Musial on Tuesday, Duke Snider on Wednesday and Willie Mays on Thursday," said Palma, who gets the former stars to sign the reproductions.
"I've had Stan Musial and Ted Williams sign uniforms for me and wonder where I got the uniforms from. It's that authentic."
Capolino says his market, covering collectors who don't dare take out an authentic jersey worth $3,000 to $12,000 but can wear a duplicate, fans who recall their childhood trips to the ballpark and women looking for a sure-fire way to meet guys.
"I've sold a ton of the shirts to women," Capolino said. "The women who wear these shirts get constant attention from men."
Duplicating the old shirts was no easy task. He pored through old magazines and newspapers looking for pictures or articles describing uniforms. Collectors with the real thing let him copy them. The Baseball Hall of Fame helped out.
As a result, he can sell a replica of a 1957 Milwaukee Braves jersey, vividly trimmed in blue and red and bearing the fruit of months of searching--a laughing warrior patch embroidered in gold, red and orange--on one sleeve. Such detail is Capolino's pride.