[Editor’s Note: It’s been a while since we’ve had a guest entry from baseball jersey restorer extraordinaire Bill Henderson. He’s back with another story today, and it’s a doozy. Enjoy! — PL]
By Bill Henderson
A century ago, all the gear required to outfit a baseball team was expensive and hard to acquire. Bases, bats, balls, catcher’s equipment, uniforms — all had to be sourced and purchased at great expense and without the aid of the tools that we take for granted today (the internet, credit cards, even long-distance phone calls). Minor league or town club teams considered themselves fortunate if they were able to work out a deal with another, more prestigious team to somehow acquire cast-offs and hand-me-downs. Sometimes those long-ago deals still have stories to tell us, as in the case of the unassuming jerseys shown above, which were recently sent my way.
The front lettering here is chain-stitched onto pieces of white linen, and then the linen was cut into letters that were straight-stitched onto the jersey with white cotton thread. (The backs of the jerseys were blank; baseball uniform numbers hadn’t yet caught on.)
Invisible to the naked eye, but immediately apparent when the jersey was laid on the light table, was the arched word “YANKEES.” Its individual letter ghosts had been directly beneath “KEEFERS,” which was the same number of letters. These ghosts are visible not because of fabric dye-staining, as you might think, but because the wool jersey is marginally thicker in those spots. Covered by the original lettering during dozens of washings, it was protected from scrubbing and agitation, and therefore remained ever-so-slightly thicker than the surrounding fabric. The thicker fabric, while not noticeable to the eye, appears darker on the light table because less light can pass through it.
As you probably know, the 1927 Yankees, nicknamed “Murderers Row,” are among the most famous and feared teams in baseball history. They finished the season with a record of 110-44 and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the World Series. Their winning percentage of .721 still stands as the highest ever. The team included nine future Hall of Famers: pitchers Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt; infielders Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri; outfielders Babe Ruth and Earle Combs; manager Miller Huggins; team president Ed Barrow; and owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. They wore the team name on their road jerseys.
Because of their fame, their star players like Ruth and Gehrig, and their home in a large city, there are more photos of this team than perhaps any other of that era. I was able to find a 1927 glass-negative photo of Babe Ruth that’s so clear, I could almost see the stitching on his suit. That would come in handy for restoring these jerseys.
Today, lettering is cut with computer-driven lasers. Back then, it was cut with a pair of sharp scissors along dusted chalk lines. Our goal in reproduction was to copy the rustic originals in all their imperfection, stitching to cover the old ghosts exactly. To make the story easier to follow, I’m going to show you the restoration process for just one of the jerseys, although the process was the same for both.
After the lettering was removed and the jerseys’ lineage determined, we had an important choice to make. The jerseys were very musty-smelling and dirty — in part from being stored for many decades, but also from being washed in shared water hundreds of times with other muddy uniforms. Even if it is “historic dirt” that came from a slide into home plate to win the World Series, dirt is not a friend to fabric. It contains mold and bacteria and acids that eat the fibers of the cloth, causing it to fail. And while the very thought of washing such a relic might seem risky, I do it all the time. As long as the fabric is stable and not falling apart from decay, hand-washing in Woolite is the answer.
This next photo shows a cupful of the dirty wash water. The water in the bucket was so brown that you could not see through it to the bottom. The garment must be rinsed until the water runs clear, which sometimes takes five buckets of clean water.
Here is where things get really creepy: When the jersey is soaking wet, the ghostly image of the original front lettering from almost 100 years ago returns to view, appearing brighter than the surrounding fabric:
To make exact patterns of the original lettering, I have a specific process I follow. First I put the garment on the light table and lay a translucent ruler on top of it. Then I use my camera to photograph the area at different degrees of exposure, knowing one of them will show the ghosts the most clearly when enhanced in Photoshop.
Next, I lay the jersey on my flatbed scanner and scan an image of it at 100%. The scanned image does not show the ghost lettering — it can’t be seen without light behind it — but it does give me an exact 100% reference image of the fabric. Next, I use Adobe Illustrator to resize the light table camera shot to exactly 100% of the original (that’s why photographing the image with a ruler in the photo is necessary!), and then I precisely overlay the two images, making the top one semi-transparent. The result is a perfect, 100%-sized image of the lettering ghosts.
Finally, I overlay the photo of Babe Ruth’s jersey, also blown up to be sized at 100% of the original jersey. The result is a perfect set of stencils to re-create the original 1927 wordmark.
I draw each letter in Adobe Illustrator. The result is a set of vector patterns that I can send to the laser cutter. But first we have to prepare the felt lettering fabric. Why? Because auction photos of old Yankees jerseys show that the navy lettering fabric tends to bleach into more of a bluish-purple color — these are the effects of laundering and sun exposure. So while I could just cut new navy lettering, that would look as silly as putting a shiny new fender on a car with dulled 90-year-old paint — it would just look wrong. The felt lettering fabric needs to be aged to match the jersey fabric.
Bleach is too strong; using it makes felt fall apart! The answer is a strong solution of Carbona, an old-time stain-removal product from the 1930s (but still available today). A packet of the crystals and almost-boiling water took just enough of the dye out of the felt to make it look suitably old without destroying its structural integrity. The wash water looked as dark as grape juice.
In this next photo, the top strip of fabric shows how the felt came out. The computer allows me to scan the color and compare it to period examples that have shown up in auction listings. We are close without making it totally bleached out like some of the aged examples. It satisfies the client.
Before cutting the letters, I fuse a micro-thin, heat-applied layer of plastic film to the back of the fabric. Thinner than Saran Wrap, it holds things nicely together during the cutting and stitching processes, while remaining completely invisible on the finished product.
The laser cutter makes quick work of the felt, although it smells like burning hair— because that’s precisely what wool felt is. Sheep hair!
Now, with the jersey back on the light table, I position the letters precisely over the ghosts from a century ago and tack them down with a light adhesive. Using a straight stitch and period-cotton thread that’s been bleached purple (the thread color is called “eggplant”), the letters are edge-sewn onto the jersey:
Here is the final result — both jerseys restored. I am pleased with the results, and so is the owner.
Of course, I did a full authentication of these jerseys with a lot of additional detail. It tells how the original three-quarter-length sleeves were shortened along the way, as well as other details that may interest you. (Can you tell what to look for in a game-worn catcher’s jersey? Why were holes cut into the shirttails?)
It’s so important when having any jersey restored to at least have the process documented. Now that the original Yankees lettering has been replaced, the shadows of the “Keefers Store” lettering might be the only thing visible on a light table, possibly causing a future authenticator to mistakenly assume it was a contrived MLB jersey made from a minor league one— rather than the other way around!
Paul here. Holy moly, what a story! Big thanks, as always, to Bill Henderson for sharing his expertise with us. You can see more of Tales From the Dream Shop here.