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Take a look at a 60-year-old photo of a baseball crowd and compare it with a photo taken more recently. They’d look pretty different, especially because of what the fans are wearing.
"In 1957, most of them were wearing jackets and ties, and sometimes fedoras," says Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden. "2015 or ’16, there’s a much wider demographic spread, there’s males and females in the picture, and many of them, more than 50 percent, probably 75 percent, are wearing some kind of jersey."
Layden is referring to team jerseys. Nobody used to wear them. Now a lot of people do, even when they aren’t at ballgames. Christian End, a social psychologist at Xavier University, has studied this aspect of fan behavior across many sports.
I saw what people wanted and I just made that happen.Manny Koenigsberg
"We know that being a fan helps you escape your stressors in life," End says. "And so maybe by slipping on that jersey, you think back to the time of when you were a kid and your only worries were really about whether or not the team was going to win on Sunday."
The luxury of wearing your favorite team jersey wasn’t always available, because it didn’t occur to sports teams — or the leagues in which they played — that anyone would want to dress like a pro athlete. Until one man got the idea. In researching a recent SI story about the phenomenon of the jersey, Tim Layden spoke with that man.
Manny's Baseball Land
"He was years and years ahead of everybody," Layden says. "He was making Mickey Mantle jerseys in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and uniforms and — mainly for little kids, but then he saw that the marketplace would bear grown-up jerseys, which he thought was the nuttiest thing. But then it actually proved to be true."
Manny Koenigsburg from Manny's Baseball Land sold jerseys...as well as other stuff featuring team logos.
Some of it was pretty dubious, especially when it came to baseball caps.
"We used to just paste the emblem on," Koenigsburg says. "But what happened was, they didn’t look that great, and they would tend to fall off."
These knockoffs emerged from Manny's South Bronx shop located directly across from Yankee Stadium. Eventually, the businesses supplying the Yankees — and other teams whose emblems Manny had appropriated — began to raise a squawk.
"And these companies would say, 'You can’t sell this,' and stuff," Koenigsberg says. "I said, 'Great! I’ll buy it from you!' I sold duplicates. I didn’t sell the actual jersey, unless I could get a hold of the PR guy, and then he would sell me jerseys. But a lot of the stuff I still made myself."
And the jerseys, jackets and caps Manny’s Baseball Land made — and sold a lot of — kept Koenigsberg in business for decades.
"We had all the team jackets, and I had embroidered emblems," he says. "Do you remember the movie 'The Natural' with Robert Redford? I had the hat, I had the jersey. And it took off. I saw what people wanted and I just made that happen."
You’d think that the visionary behind this operation might be inclined to boast about his success. But…
"I myself don't understand it at all," Koenigsberg says. "'Cuz I never cared for baseball. I like football. Baseball was boring, but it was my business, so I went with it, you know?"
By the time Manny Koenigsburg retired to Las Vegas in 1978, all manner of other entrepreneurs were taking advantage of the desire of many fans to dress like their sports heroes. And that would sort of be the end of an amusing little story about sports jerseys…if Koenigsberg wasn’t so great at telling stories, one of which involves no less a personage than Ol’ Blue Eyes, aka, the Chairman of the Board.
Frank Sinatra Gets A Jacket
"I was out at Atlantic City and with a young lady," Koenigsberg says, "and she wants to see Frank Sinatra. I said, 'I don’t know if I can get tickets for Sinatra. I’m sure he’s sold out.'"
And he was. So Koenigsberg and his young lady would have been out of luck, except that Koenigsberg recognized a guy on the boardwalk by the name of Lester. He was a peddler who usually worked outside Yankee Stadium, which is why Koenigsberg recognized him. That evening Lester was selling Sinatra buttons.
"So I said, 'Hey, my girlfriend here is driving me nuts,'" Koenigsberg says, "'Can you get me in to see Sinatra?' He said, 'Sure, you know, I think I can. I’ll talk to Jilly.' Now this is Jilly Rizzo, the gangster. He was pretty dangerous."
But, at least on this occasion, also pretty accommodating. The alleged gangster and pal of Frank Sinatra worked it so Koenigsberg and his lady could see the show. And afterward, the peddler who’d made the contact caught him on the way out of the theater.
"Lester stops me and says, 'Jilly wants to talk to you.' I said, 'Sure, you know. All right.' So he said, 'Is youze' — this is just the way he said it — 'Is youze the guy that sells these jackets by Yankee Stadium?' And I said, 'Yeah,' scaringly.
But it’s all OK, right? Because Jilly just wants a couple of jackets...
"'One just like the Yankees. I don’t want the Yankees, though. I don’t want any of that crap. I want 'Jilly' on one of them and 'Sinatra' on the other one.' So I said, 'I don’t think I can do it.' So he says, 'You’ll have ‘em here!' I said, 'I’ll try, all right?' He says, 'You’ll have ‘em here!' And I said, 'OK.'”
And you know Koenigsberg got the jackets to Frank Sinatra, because Koenigsberg lived to retire to Las Vegas, or he wouldn’t have been able to tell me that story...which started with us wondering about all the people wearing jerseys when they go to the game, and it just goes to show you that you never know where a story is going to lead, and that sometimes you get to Frank Sinatra, or at least to his pal, Jilly, who, according to Koenigsberg at least, enjoyed those jackets very much.
This segment aired on April 9, 2016.
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