Divine Vintage: Paying Props to the Past
Today marks the 54th Super Bowl in NFL history, and for the 54th time, my beloved Cleveland Browns won’t be playing in it.
It’s an annual rite of futility that hasn’t dampened my devotion to the team one bit. Though I’ll admit to skipping more and more of their games the last 20+ years since they re-entered the league, just two of which featured a winning record, with just a single playoff appearance.
It’s been easier, lately, to avert my eyes.
But growing up in Dover, Ohio, just a half hour south of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, I was raised on the Brownies. Heck, my grandpa Ley waxed so poetic, so often about the original, legendary Cleveland teams from 1946 onward, you couldn’t blame me for thinking the likes of Paul Brown, “Automatic”Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Lou “the Toe” Groza, Dante “Glue Fingers” Lavelli and Mac Speedie were members of the family.
Sure, you could wind up Grandpa just as much about the 1940s baseball Indians’ Bob Feller, or Larry Doby, or Satchel Paige. But football in Ohio will always be king.
My high school’s rivalry with neighboring (ugh) New Philadelphia dates back to 1896, and there’s still plenty of (bad) blood left in that series. And Buckeyes far and wide are well represented each year on the national scene by Ohio State. I never miss a game, and lately there’s been a lot more joy with the Bucks than pain, Clemson notwithstanding.
But pro football in northeast Ohio during my lifetime has been a slog of 43 seasons of suffering, from the Cardiac Kids, to Bernie and Byner slain by the outsized beaver teeth of John Elway (still bitter? yeah….), to an unknown coach named Belichick making us believers, only to have (classless) Art Model rip our hearts out with the team’s move to Baltimore.
Hey, at least I got my first newspaper byline out of it. Which arguably led to my marriage, and family. But also included the (ugh) Ravens bagging two Super Bowl titles in the years since. Would I have traded it all, if the original Browns had stayed? … No. Of course not. But I’d at least negotiate!
So I’ll tune in to the big game as I always do: simmering a big pot of chili, revving up fleeting interest in a matchup that will end with another team laying claim to the big prize. And wearing at least one of my Browns jerseys. Gotta represent.
Super Duds: Donning the Orange and Brown
To me, there’s no sports jersey more beautiful than the Browns’.
I’ll wait until you stop laughing and say it again. To me there’s no uniform, anywhere, more perfect, more pristine, more gorgeous than the classic Cleveland Browns uni.
Oh, you can throw the current threads straight in the trash. With the turd-brown variant pants, and the occasional orange jersey, the absurd BROWNS wordmark down the pants looking like something out of high school.
I’m talking about the uniform they wore for 50, 60 years before the team collectively lost its minds.
I love the no-logo helmet in bright orange, with or without the black and white stripe down the middle. I dig the five contrasting stripes on the jersey sleeves and stirrups over the socks — you know, back when jerseys had sleeves, and players wore anything but plain stirrups — black and orange on the white jerseys, white and orange on the brown.
I’ll go further down this obsessive path. I prefer the long-sleeved jerseys so dominant with the teams of the 1940s through 1950s, the era of classic football. No logo. No television numbers. Padded more thickly than the cushions on your couch. Helmets with a single bar, or even no bar.
Yeah, I’m pining for an era that hasn’t existed for like 70 years. When the Browns went to 10 straight championship games, and won 7. When they were beamed into the NFL from the rival AAFC in 1950 and not only whipped the defending-champion (then-believed-greatest-of-all-time) Philadelphia Eagles in the season’s opening game, but in the rematch, after the Eagles groused about the Browns’ revolutionary passing game as being a “finesse move,” didn’t throw a single pass and whipped the Eagles anyway.
That era. Those stories. Those Browns.
Luckily, in today’s jersey market, there are vintage options galore to take (some of) the sting out of my team’s current reality.
In Praise of Throwback Jerseys
Call it avoidance behavior. Or robing myself in fantasy. I prefer to think of it as a gracious nod to history. And besides, vintage can just look so damn good.
As noted, there are lots of places doing it. Some of my favorites:
- Mitchell & Ness, out of Philadelphia, Pa., has long turned out authentic jerseys from MLB, and the NBA. There’s a 1948 Bob Feller home jersey I think is just this side of royal robes. About seven years ago, my wife ordered me a 1964 Jim Brown jersey. It’s always odd, being a middle-aged dad-type and wearing superman’s cape. Though holding a baby and playing piano at the same time while doing it at least requires a certain admirable skillset.
- Homage, in my birthplace of Columbus, Ohio, Buckeyes’ mecca, turns out rack after rack of vintage T-shirts and caps and other fun, pop culture knicknacks. I picked up a couple T-shirts a few years back for Buckeyes game days. Oh, and a classic Woody Hayes cap, made in partnership with Ebbets Field Flannels.
But for me, nobody does it better than Ebbets Field Flannels.
Based out of Seattle, Wash., Ebbets is a brand I’ve followed for almost as long as I’ve been crying over Browns football. I first heard about the homemade, “vintage-authentic” shop about the same time everyone did, from a Sports Illustrated magazine article circa 1989, barely a year into the brand’s existence.
Owner and musician Jerry Cohen wanted to wear something distinctive on stage, and he thought (rightly) that modern-era polyester jerseys were crap. A native of Brooklyn, raised on Dodgers lore, he became obsessed with recreating uniforms of the past to the tiniest detail, down to the specific wool and felt and satin that went into caps and jerseys, and the manufacturing techniques to assemble them just right.
I pored over the catalogs from Ebbets whenever they’d arrive. As a middle schooler, I couldn’t hope to afford even a $40 ballcap, but I learned the stories of the oldtime minor league and Negro Leagues teams Ebbets reproduced.
In college, I scraped together enough dough for an Ebbets T-shirt, of the Portland Lucky Beavers. Fast-forward a few years to when I picked up the Woody Hayes cap as part of Homage’s collaboration with Ebbets, and I looked up the grand Seattle brand again. This time, the wallet cooperated.
I soon had a vintage artwork Sioux Falls Canaries T-shirt to sit in the drawer with my still-cool Lucky Beavers tee, and added a Cleveland Buckeyes 1945 championship jersey and 1915 Chicago Whales jersey to my upgraded closet.
In 2014, I made an even deeper connection with Ebbets when I undertook a vintage authentic project of my own: to recreate my grandpa Foutz’s 1931 Dover High School jersey. That whole saga is outlined here, and the results were better than I could ever have dreamed. Not only did we deliver a replica of grandpa’s jersey that my dad could wear, I tracked down grandpa’s actual jersey from a collector back in my hometown, and presented both to Dad over Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It’s hard to top that one, both for the personal connection and the effort that went into it. And so I cooled off a bit on the vintage kick for a bit. Oh, I still hit up Ebbets’ website every so often, checking out the new stock. I stopped by in Seattle, twice, during business trips, preparing to part, happily, from more of my cash. But nothing grabbed me the same way.
What I had given up hope on was ever seeing the classic Browns jersey I had longed to see in the Ebbets catalog, going back at least to the early 1990s, when Ebbets branched out from their baseball kits to release replica hockey and football jerseys. These were some old, old clubs: the 1928 Duluth Eskimos, the 1925 Ironton Tanks. Nothing even catching a whiff of an NFL license, though.
And then, in the last couple years, Ebbets started making the 1940s AAFC jerseys. The same teams the Browns shared their upstart league with, and trounced in 4 straight championship seasons from 1946 to 1949.
But no Browns.
And then Ebbets began releasing a whole slew of old college jerseys. There was (ugh) Michigan, and a few old Oklahoma caps and jerseys that almost evoked a Buckeyes look, but nothing I’d pull the trigger on.
Except: there was this #76 jersey from Brown University that almost, almost looked the part of something I could see Marion Motley wearing as a fullback with the original Browns, running over defenders, leaving them dangling from his churning knees, then grasping in the dirt.
And then, this year, lo and behold: Ebbets landed an NFL license for the league’s 100th season. And: hold on to the bleachers: produced a roster of gorgeous, authentic wool and 1950s/60s Durene cotton/nylon layered jerseys in long-sleeved, hall-of-fame glory.
I ordered my #14 1952 Otto Graham jersey the same day they were announced.
There’s also a gorgeous 1946 brown wool jersey, if that’s your thing. If you’re like me, it’s hard to choose.
So, while I mark the 54th season without a Browns Super Bowl champion, and enjoy my chili, and sip my beer, and sit through the commercials, I’ll do so sporting a connection to the glory days, the stories of Otto and Mac and Dante and Marion and Lou Groza (and Lou Saban) and Warren Lahr and Len Ford and Big Bill WIllis and the rest.
And dream of happy endings in futures yet written.