Last spring the hip-hop superstar Jay-Z—in the video for his single Girls Girls Girls—wore an exact replica of the maroon, long-sleeved number 33 jersey that Sammy Baugh sported for the Washington Redskins in 1947. Scant weeks later Baugh himself left his ranch house in Rotan, Texas, for his once-a-month visit to the mailbox, in which he discovered a five-figure royalty check that must have appeared, to his 88-year-old eyes, to be a bank error in his favor. "He's been thinking ever since," says Peter Capolino, the 57-year-old Philadelphian who introduced, as it were, Jay-Z to Slingin' Sammy, "What is going on?"
What is going on? In rap videos, endlessly rotating on the lazy Susan of MTV, it seems that every artist and his entourage are outfitted in "vintage" baseball, basketball, football and hockey jerseys, most frequently in the double-knit, V-neck, pullover baseball jerseys of the 1970s. Some of history's most hideous artifacts—the Denver Nuggets' rainbow unis, the San Diego Padres' counter-personnel-at-Burger-King shirts—have, in the last four years, happily colorized the gray landscapes of urban America. "I once asked Eric Clapton if he played a musical instrument," says Capolino, who oversees the meticulous re-creation of these uniforms, to the smallest detail, above his century-old Mitchell & Ness sporting-goods store in Philly. "So you can imagine how much I knew about the hip-hop world."
Today, the garrulous Capolino is known to his manifold hip-hop friends as P-City, a nickname given him by the rapper P. Diddy, who owns at least 60 Mitchell & Ness throwbacks, which retail for roughly $275 apiece. Shaquille O'Neal frequently calls P-City from his exercise bike to custom-order XXXXXXXXL jerseys with nine extra inches of length. ( O'Neal's first purchase: a replica of Allen Iverson's rookie Sixers uniform.) Actress Jamie Lee Curtis favors old Mike Schmidt Phillies unis, with the burgundy stripe on the sleeves. Talk-show host Larry King bought a striking green Brooklyn Dodgers jacket identical to the one worn, in 1937, by Bums manager Burleigh Grimes. But the most sought-after item of "urbanwear" in America is the Mitchell & Ness 1980 Nolan Ryan Houston Astros gold, orange and red top, which makes Joseph's amazing technicolor dreamcoat look sober by comparison.
"I was spurred by desperation," says Capolino, of the pop-cultural explosion he inadvertently ignited in the sporting-goods store that his family has owned for 50 years. "I was competing with Modell's and the Sports Authority, and I had nothing unique to offer." And so, when he found 12,000 yards of wool flannel in a Philadelphia warehouse in 1986, Capolino began to painstakingly re-create, from old photographs, classic baseball uniforms for "older, white, conservative males who have this thing [about baseball] that goes back to childhood."
One of the few stores that carried these uniforms was Distant Replays in Atlanta, where the rap duo Outkast bought Mitchell & Ness retro Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs uniforms, which they wore in the photo appearing in the liner jacket of their platinum 1998 album, Aquemini. When that album exploded, so did the uniform sales, and Capolino was instantly consorting with men named P. Diddy, Fabulous, Big Boi, Fat Joe and Scarface, the last soon to open a store in Houston that will feature M&N apparel. "If we're going to be in business, I can't call you Scarface," Capolino told the rap star, who replied softly, "Oh. Call me Brad."
Since 1999 Capolino's company has grown from 11 employees, with annual sales of $2.8 million, to 55 employees, with annual sales of $25 million. Rap stars now fight to be the first to wear a new old M&N uni, sometimes almost literally so. Angered that Bow Wow was sold a 1984 white snap-front Chicago Bulls warmup top before he was, Jay-Z tossed Reuben (Big Rube) Harley, M&N's 28-year-old director of urban marketing, out of a video shoot.
Big Rube is P-City's liaison to the stars. He looked undaunted last Friday showing Busta Rhymes around the cramped M&N store, with its powder-blue Bob McAdoo Buffalo Braves uniforms and its Bill Russell "half-zip" Boston Celtics warmup tops. "People walk in, and it's like their childhood is in a whirlwind around 'em," says Big Rube, a delightful, nearly inaudible native of West Philly. "It just brings a smile to your face."
Like everyone who works at M&N, Big Rube and P-City are sports-history polymaths. Capolino's favorite uniform of all time is his '44 St. Louis Cardinals Stan Musial replica, not least because it brokered his meeting with Eulah Street—the woman, now deceased, who for decades did the embroidering of the Cardinals' birds-and-bat logo—a get-together that Capolino found every bit as exciting as Diddy's South Beach New Year's Eve party.
Capolino fingers a red Syracuse Nationals warmup jacket-he can tell you, instantly, that it's a heavyweight Oxford satin—and for a moment it is 1955 again, and the Nats are champions of the world. And the ghostly men who wore the uniforms all around him are suddenly reanimated, as is Capolino himself. "His friends sometimes tell me," Big Rube says of his boss, " 'you've brought a lot of life to this old white guy.' "