Saturday, January 25, 2014

Baseball: The Vintage Heart of Seattle

Ebbets Field Flannels celebrated 25 years in 2013 (Photo / EFF) 

With the approach of the Seahawks' Super Bowl appearance, the majority of the news coming from Seattle is understandably about its football team. When it comes to pre-Super Bowl coverage, unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns comes into play nearly immediately. Rather than hasten its arrival, we'll look to a Seattle success story whose name echoes the call of opening day. 

Jerry Cohen and Lisa Cooper are the founder and co-founder of the city's Ebbets Field Flannels (EFF). EFF is not easily described, but in the spirit of the game, we'll take a swing. It's a company that creates jerseys and clothing (often) inspired by the uniforms and apparel of mid-20th century baseball teams. That's not a full description, but it's a start and the rest we'll leave to Lisa with some interjections from Jerry. The interview has been edited for length and clarity and was conducted via email.

Boxer Journal: Ebbets Field is obviously a reference to the old ballpark. Why that park in particular? 

Jerry: I was born in Brooklyn in 1958, the first year in the borough with no Dodgers baseball. So while I wasn't a Dodgers' fan myself, the company name is a tip of the cap to my birthplace, and particularly to my dad, Stan, who was a big Dodgers - especially Jackie Robinson - fan.

Boxer Journal: Founding in 1988, you had perhaps an eight-year window before the Internet became prominently used commercially. What was your method of marketing in the earliest days of EFF? Mail order catalogs? 

Lisa: Yes - mail order catalogs, around four per year. Things of beauty. With the exception perhaps of the first one which was a cut and paste, black & white production more reminiscent of an underground music 'zine than a sports apparel catalog.

Jerry: ...and small-space ads. Also lots of word of mouth.

Boxer Journal: On Instagram you have a lot of pictures of the new store. How long have you had a store presence? And can you talk a little about the current building? It looks like an Art Deco exterior.

Ebbets Field Flannels store, Seattle, WA (Photo / EFF)

Lisa: We've always had a showroom open to the public. It was a real adventure of discovery for folks who sought out Ebbets back then. 

First you had to find the industrial warehouse building which sat on a street above the waterfront, just north of downtown Seattle. You then had to walk between buildings to find the right door to enter. Once inside you then had to walk down the hallway until you found the correct whitewashed barn door. When that door slid open- voila!...racks and racks of jackets, and jerseys.

Starbucks' Howard Schultz, meeting a friend there for Christmas shopping and walking in for the first time, said "oh...wow this is incredible." It was fun. Floor to ceiling baseball caps - a mass of color and texture of what was then unknown reproductions from forgotten teams and leagues. It was unheard of in this era. 

It was there that I answered the phone and took a catalog request from a sweetheart of an older gentleman. I told him he had a real baseball sounding name and he said "Well, I guess I do, don't I?"

After hanging up I said to guys "should I recognize the name Duke Snider?" Dave Keller, who was our customer service person at the time started softly hitting his head on the desk. Needless to say - we made Duke a complimentary jersey and I wrote him a sweet note to go with it. He was a gem of a man.

Jerry: We've had a retail presence in Seattle in some form or other since about 1995. Our current building is actually of the same period as many others in the Pioneer Square neighborhood (circa 1900), but is unusual in that it had an art deco facade added at some point. We found this very evocative of our brand.

Lisa: We love our new location and have only been here a few months but it feels like forever. The building itself is one of the original buildings of Seattle. When flushing toilets were installed in Seattle, they blew up sky high when the tides came in. So all the streets then had to be built up almost a full story. You can see the old doorway arches in our basement and outside in the alley.

Seattle used to be the garment district in all of the states back during the Klondike Gold Rush. I am sure there was some retail going on in our space back then. Like Jerry said, I would imagine the art deco facade was added later. If you study the decorative cement work it appears it may have been a Masonic Lodge at one point as it beautifully incorporates their symbolism.  

Boxer Journal: Instagram also has a lot of shots of the development of the interior of the store...

Lisa: For so long our public face had been our warehouse - wherever that may have been at the moment. Over time we became more and more about utility and easy access to our products for picking and shipping.

I wanted to return to the romance of our product. I was bound and determined to take it back and make it shine like it should and match the brand image. I'm creative, artistic and in love with good lighting. And I'm all about re-purposing materials.

The company's Seattle store interior (Photo / EFF)

Our cash wrap, cash shelves and hanging rack shelf tops are made using the wooden bleacher boards from Battleground Washington High School. The tables in the store and upstairs are slabs of bowling alley floor.

And Jerry had some great ideas that were incorporated such as the Satchel Paige quote above the front door. And of course my buddy Duke living large on the wall behind the cash wrap.

Boxer Journal: We see the players on an increasing number of throwback days wearing what I presume to be EFF's. For actual game play, are the uniforms constructed differently? Are the players really playing in flannel?

Lisa: That would be a qualified yes. We have outfitted just about all of the major league teams - and many minor league teams over the years. However - for some reason, MLB seems to be tightening the reigns year after year on this.

Now it is pretty much only the three major licensees of MLB who have the "right." I find this ironic as they usually get it wrong. Some of the wrong being concessions made for modern fit, et. al. But what are you going to do? It is what is is.

Boxer Journal: They did that to the Cape Cod League awhile back.

Lisa: When we outfitted for the movie 42 we were allowed to do the uniforms for Montreal and the other minor league teams in the film. We were organized, delivered quickly and spot on. The other licensed companies involved...not so much.

We understand that sports licensing is a multi-million dollar business and a behemoth with rules and regulations that are complex to say the least. In the end, we full on love our niche. Historically speaking it is a far richer story.

Jerry: Complicated question. Briefly, we did pioneer the Turn-Back-the-Clock (TBC) concept back in the early 1990's and did many games in both the majors and minors. As Lisa pointed out, MLB now has a designated licensee for on-field, so we do not get to outfit those games. When we have done them, we have used both the original flannel fabric, or the contemporary poly knit fabric, according to the preference of the team.

We've actually been more involved in events like the closing of the original Yankee Stadium, the 50th anniversary of the first Dodgers season at the Coliseum, and the Red Sox commemoration of the 1968 team than we have in TBC outfitting.

Boxer Journal: What teams have most embraced throwback or TBC days on the diamond?

Lisa: The Chicago White Sox, bless their hearts, have an ongoing Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe day. And of course the Seattle Mariners. Kevin Martinez in marketing has been a huge Ebbets proponent over the years. He is just the best there is in the game.

In 2013, the Mariners wore replica uniforms of these 1909 Seattle Turks (Photo / vintageseattle.org)

Jerry: The brand has really moved away from on-field, and is more about American heritage sportswear manufacturing and lifestyle.

As Lisa mentioned, we did do the minor league and Negro League uniforms for the movie 42, however. I would say in our growth in recent years, we have become somewhat less tied to the contemporary baseball world, and more in tune with fashion, while still basing our product concepts in athletic apparel history and in those stories.

Boxer Journal: Obviously college football is doing all sorts of uniform changes and throwbacks, but I would guess your materials are not prone to football.

Lisa: Not yet, but we did just bring in a flatbed knitting machine. Perhaps by this time next year you may see a collegiate football turn-back or two on field. Nike would hate that.

- Tom Flynn

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