Last March, a doctor walked into Sports Fan-Attic at Mission Viejo Mall to buy 20 old-fashioned pro baseball jerseys for his office softball team. The shirts, made by Mirage, retail for $50 each. But only the nostalgic look would do.
In the weeks before Father's Day this year, Nordstrom's menswear department was doing brisk business in sumptuous, authentic reproductions of old-time baseball jerseys made by Mitchell & Ness of Philadelphia for up to $235 each.
No question about it: Baseball nostalgia has become baseball chic.
"The nostalgia thing probably happened only about two years ago, when Mitchell & Ness did their first catalogue," says Mark Christensen, owner of Sports Fan-Attic.
High-quality, pro-team jerseys, jackets and hats have been on the market since the early 1980s, "but the nostalgia jerseys became hot in the past year. After some test-marketing, mass-produced lines from the Orient, like Mirage, allowed the bigger chains to make it a big market segment," he says.
The result is apparent in department stores such as Nordstrom, where authentic reproductions made of the same wool flannel as the originals are available in menswear, but cheaper knock-offs are on the racks in the women's and juniors' departments. Entire lines featuring the baseball look have been introduced, notably Tag Rag and Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule.
"Everybody does a baseball jersey look," says one chain buyer. "It's a real popular silhouette for the kids."
"It's moved off of the diamond and into fashion," says Larry Cahan, fashion coordinator for Macy's and Bullock's. "The sports-related novelty items have been very, very successful for us. There's people who will go out and pay $250 for an authentic jersey, but women can buy a great-looking one for $40, and who cares what it says on the back?"
Some do care. Like Barney Sofro, who has--are you ready?--25 vintage Major League Baseball jerseys.
"I'm a 50-year-old guy who grew up with the Mickey Mantles and the Ted Williamses," Sofro says. And sometimes he misses the heroes of his youth.
"The whole deal is, I feel like Stan Musial when I wear my 1946 St. Louis Cardinals' uniform with his number on the back."
When Sofro dons a New York Giants' jersey, he turns into Bobby Thomson hitting the home run that won the 1951 pennant.
Changing into a Milwaukee Braves' shirt, the chairman of the board of House of Fabric stores becomes Hall of Fame member Eddie Mathews launching another homer.
Such big-ticket, authentic jerseys have sold surprisingly well, even though there are few out there as enthusiastic as Sofro.
The trend "came on real strong prior to Father's Day," said Linda Luna-Franks, spokeswoman for Nordstrom in Orange County. "It was a real popular item, and it carried into the fall season. People came in looking for it."
Oddly, the demand for baseball jerseys has had almost no impact at Anaheim Stadium, where the souvenir shops sell jerseys identical to the ones worn by the Angels for $100. An authentic batting practice jersey goes for $50.
"See, my regular $100 jerseys, I might sell 24 or 36 a year. My pennants, I'm selling 25,000," says Sam Maida, the stadium's novelty manager.
"My main audience here is kids. I sell everything to kids. I'm talking things $10 or less. I don't have the clientele or traffic of a Nordstrom--higher-class people coming through constantly."
The baseball season ends this month, and retailers in Orange County say they are reducing prices and stock on the expensive, authentic jerseys. But the baseball look will be apparent long after the baseball season. It's following a pattern that apparently originated with celebrity interest in baseball apparel.
"I think (the interest in jerseys) carries over from baseball caps," says Tom Julian, fashion director of the New York-based Men's Fashion Assn., a manufacturer's group that tracks fashion trends.
"We've never seen the baseball look come off of the playing field as much as we have today."
Says Marjorie Deane, owner of New York's Tobe Report, a weekly merchandising journal for retailers: "The (recent)movie 'A League of Their Own' is part of the look. The fact that Madonna and Geena Davis are wearing it certainly helped. But people were in the mood before that."
This summer several chains reported big sales of imitation jerseys. Nina Garduno, a vice president at Fred Segal Melrose, says she bought the shirts for their looks, not their nostalgia value.
"(So) I was surprised that so many guys came in and could tell the whole story of the uniform: who wore it, the year it was worn, the game of the World Series--like (one) worn by Babe Ruth in the World Series in Chicago," Garduno says.
"That's what lots of fashion is now. It gets the kid in these guys. . . . Three years ago it was the bomber jacket that Spencer Tracy wore in those old black-and-white flight movies. They start to remember their childhood."
Some women buy jerseys for different reasons, Garduno says.