Here's a new twist to the old boy-meets-girl ritual: Young woman standing in line at a bank is approached by a man who admires her baggy old-time baseball shirt with BOSTON across the front and a big number 9 on the back.
He: "What did you do, rob the Baseball Hall of Fame?"
She: "Pardon me?"
He: "Where did you get that '51 Ted Williams road jersey?"
She: "At a little shop right here in Philadelphia. Do you like it?"
He: "Like it? I'd kill for it. Can I get the address—and yours too maybe?"
That the period jerseys he so carefully re-created would become a fashion statement or a social icebreaker amuses Peter Capolino, 42, owner of Mitchell & Ness Sporting Goods at 1229 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. He had envisioned his customers as mid-life males who, to bring back the green grass of youth, would gladly pay $90 to $175 for a '39 Joe DiMaggio or a '51 Willie Mays.
Capolino specialized in contemporary pro uniform shirts and historic baseball caps until one spring day in 1985, when on a visit to a local manufacturer, he noticed some piles of long-discarded wool flannel. The company, Maple Manufacturing, had used the material to make local amateur and college uniforms in the days before double knits. Big league teams switched to synthetics in the late '50s, having worn the heavy wool flannels through every summer.
If baseball hats can sell, why not shirts, thought Capolino. Collectors will pay $2,000 to $25,000 for authentic uniforms, so wouldn't a serious fan pay $125 for a good reproduction of a shirt?
His first shirt was a copy of a genuine '49 Roy Sievers jersey that a collector had brought in for repair—a vivid St. Louis Browns number 15 with orange-and-brown 3D lettering. To meet the exacting needs of his customers, who know every squiggle and nuance in the old uniforms, he put in days of research. A key source turned out to be directly upstairs from his shop—Reedmor Books, a rambling warehouse of a store. Capolino leafed through piles of old sports journals, looking for the right photos. He spent months chasing down a single emblem, the smiling Indian warrior on the sleeve of a 1957 Milwaukee Braves uniform, eventually finding it at a baseball-card show. Warren Spahn's number 21—bearing the emblem and a bright tomahawk across the zippered front—is today the handsomest, most expensive ($175) and biggest-selling shirt at Mitchell & Ness. Another popular shirt, a colorful '46 Musial, is coveted partly because '46 was a year in which the emblematic bat holding the two redbirds was black, not the customary gold.