Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Curb your Enthusiasm: A sweater is a sweater is a sweater... (or not)

One of the things I've enjoyed most about making these replicas is the amount of attention they've garnered on social media. Who knew so many people were interested in historic uniforms and other regalia?

(Of course, I need to give credit where credit is due. I'm well aware that most of you wouldn't know anything about these projects without the many retweets, photo tags, and active participation of people like Todd Radom, Baseball by BSmile, Phil Hecken, Paul Lukas, John Thorn etc. Thank you all so much for your enthusiasm and support. It's made a real difference.)

So anyway... Back to blogging...

NOT the same sweater... (pic credit: @BSmile)
Since I began tweeting about the Ty Cobb sweater, various pictures have been posted, all with Cobb wearing a sweater that appears to be the one I'm recreating. If you look closely however, it becomes clear that he owned a number of different official team sweaters. It may even be that he sported a different sweater every season, in much the same way that official team hoodies change from year to year. (After all, these sweaters were basically the early twentieth-century equivalent.)

Still not the same sweater... (pic credit: @BSmile)
Considering they were wool, it makes even more sense that a team would annually issue new ones. Wool may be warm, but it wears out faster than you'd expect. Anyone who wears hand-knit wool socks (*raises hand*) can attest to the fact that they develop holes much more quickly than store-bought cotton ones. Sweaters are prone to the same problem, especially at the elbows. (See? Those leather elbow patches are there for a reason! :)

In addition, sweaters tend to "pill" under the arms. You know, those little blobs of lint that stay attached and seem impossible to get rid of... And of course water (or sweat) is always a problem. While wool is reasonably water-resistant and will keep you warm even when it's wet, a good soaking can lead to warping or shrinkage. (C'mon. How many of you have shrunk a sweater in the wash? Be honest...)

Yep, this is the original! (pic credit: @JDaniel2033)
In short, a sweater that's pristine in March might look pretty ratty by September. In fact, that may be part of the reason there are so few vintage sweaters left, and why the ones we do have look practically unused. Why would a player keep something that's worn through, especially when he knows he'll get a new one next season?

That's an overly-long digression, but my point is that, unless they were taken in the same year, each of those Ty Cobb photos probably shows him in a different sweater. And we should be grateful that any of them survived to the present day...

(Final note: If anyone reading this knows of a vintage baseball sweater that is neither in the Baseball Hall of Fame nor the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, PLEASE CONTACT ME!! At present, I only know of nine or ten still in existence. I'd like to think there are more, and every replica I produce is another piece of history saved.)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Backstory: From Socks to Sweaters...

In the spring of 2011, I received what might be called an... um... urgent phone call from the HOF's Senior Curator, Tom Shieber. They were putting together a summer exhibit called "One for the Books," which focused on the sorts of baseball records that don't usually appear on a stat sheet.

Among other things, the display included the uniform of Eddie Gaedel, the shortest man to ever play MLB. His signing was essentially a publicity stunt by St. Louis Browns' owner Bill Veeck, but at 3'7", Gaedel's impossibly small strike zone enabled him to get a walk in his only plate appearance. (Naturally, he was immediately switched out for a pinch runner. :)

Pic credit: Tom Shieber
The problem was that Gaedel's uniform lacked socks. Considering the short-legged style worn in 1951, their lack would make the display look incomplete. With three weeks' notice, Tom asked me if I could knit a reasonably accurate pair of replica stirrup socks. All I had to go on was the knitting gauge (the number of
stitches and rows per inch) from a pair of 1952 socks and this collage:

Eddie Gaedel's uniform, OFTB exhibit, 2011
Fortunately, one of the photos showed Gaedel standing up, meaning I could scale the stripes and the length to his 3'7" frame. Two weeks later, I had a finished pair of stirrup socks; I even had a friend's son try them on to double-check the sizing.

As it turned out, the socks were perfect. At the same time, I discovered the joy and the challenge of creating vintage replicas. Now that I had "the bug," I wanted to try my hand at other baseball regalia. When I visited Cooperstown that summer, I was given the opportunity to delve into the HOF's vaults, in hopes of finding something else to duplicate.

With Tom's assistance--okay, it was his idea, and he nailed it--we decided on the Ty Cobb Sweater. It was reasonably simple (at these things go) and, because Cobb had donated it personally, we were sure of its authenticity.

The afternoon I spent in the bowels of the HOF was some of the most fun I've ever had. Not only did I get to look through stacks--and I means stacks--of other historical items, but I had the opportunity to handle the sweater and get the sort of information impossible to glean from a photograph. (Don't worry. I promise to go into lots of detail on that in upcoming posts. :)

That visit was my real transition from "design contest winner" to "baseball replica knitter." I didn't want to make any old replica; I wanted something as close to the original as possible--same construction, same size, same gauge, same weight, same materials. Now I had a project, and a goal, and a challenge. Little did I realize how much of a challenge that would turn out to be...

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Work-in-Progress: Status of Ty Cobb and ECL Sweaters, September 2016

Before I post any more entries, I figured it was only fair to show you how far along I am with the Ty Cobb and the ECL Sweaters.

Top: Ty Cobb Sweater; Bottom: ECL Sweater
For all you non-knitters out there, I know what you're thinking:

"That's it? Where's the rest?"
Closeup of hem and pocket opening

Yes, this is the boring part. I've done the hem and the pocket openings on both, but now I've got another foot or so of stockinette stitch (that's jargon for "it looks like normal knitting") before I hit the collar and the sleeves.

Believe it or not--and I promise you will believe it after a few more blog posts--working hundreds of stitches of stockinette at a tight gauge on heavy yarn is both laborious and time-consuming. In other words, these aren't the sort of projects you finish in a hurry.

For those of you who thought I was farther along on the Ty Cobb sweater...you're right, I was. Notice the past tense there. One of the problems with trying to create accurate historical replicas is that you're unlikely to get it right on the first try. Or the second. Or... The construction, the techniques, and even the use of yarn are so different that reverse-engineering a garment requires a lot more research and "testing" than you'd think (as I've learned the hard way.) Expect to see a lot more detail on my trials and errors (mostly errors) in upcoming posts.

The good news is that I'm doing all the grunt work for you. Ultimately, these will lead to patterns that will allow you to knit your own sweaters. And, unlike me, yours will be right on the first try.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Backstory: Stitch N' Pitch

What with my interests in both knitting and baseball, it was inevitable that I become involved with Stitch N' Pitch, a fan organization that encourages fans to proudly work on their stitchery at ballgames. Many teams at all levels--MLB, Minor League Baseball, Independent Leagues etc.--have a "Stitch N' Pitch Day," with a special section set aside for participants and a stitchery-related giveaway. 

When I attended my first SnP at Coors Field in 2007, little did I realize the life-changing events that were being set in motion. At the time, I was working on a baseball-related sock pattern--not for publication, as it included team logos, but purely for my own use. However, when I discovered that SnP was holding a national design contest (with the blessing of MLB), I realized that here was a chance to show my socks to the world without fear of trademark violation. When I never heard back from the organizers, I assumed that I must have failed to even place...until a friend showed me the website with the contest winners. There were my socks at the top of the page!

(Note: Since publication, my last name has changed back to Wills.)
As a result, the pattern was published by CRAFT Magazine, and the triumph was even written up in Rockies Magazine. (In an interesting coincidence, the author of that piece was Paul Swydan, now managing editor for The Hardball Times and editor of FanGraphs. Looks like we've all come up in the world!)

The sock pattern is still available (for free!) at my old knitting website and through my Ravelry store. While the winning socks are Rockies-themed, the pattern includes logos for about 25 of the 30 MLB teams; looking on Ravelry, it appears that the Red Sox have actually turned out to be the most popular.

As if winning SnP's national design contest wasn't enough, in 2009 the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum asked me to donate my socks to their collection. They were put up in the "Rockies' Locker" in the spring of 2010, so as to coincide with the HOF's first "Stitch N' Pitch Day," and have been on display ever since. As of last September, they have been moved to the "Today's Game" exhibit, giving them even greater pride of place.

Pic credit: Todd Radom
If you remember from my previous blog entry, my father always believed I was destined to be a Hall-of-Famer. While I'm sure this wasn't the route he expected, it would appear the Fates have proven him right... :)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Backstory: Not One of the Usual Suspects

Yep, I agree. If you were to picture someone who designs and knits vintage baseball regalia, it wouldn't be me. In fact, the question I get most often has nothing to do with knitting at all:

"So, how does an astrophysicist become interested in baseball anyway?"

Allow me to set the record straight.

My dad was a ballplayer all the way through college. He grew up in Wisconsin, and lived and died with the Milwaukee Braves. When I was born, not only on Opening Day, but the day that the Braves' Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth's home run record, my dad took it as a sign that I was destined to be a Hall-of-Famer. He went out and bought me a baseball bat that very day--my only "true" birthday present. I was three weeks old when I went to my first ballgame; it was at Veterans Stadium, Steve Carlton was pitching, and I still have the Phillies' batting helmet that was the fan giveaway.

While I was never much of a player, I've been keeping score since before I can remember and have been an official scorer in some capacity since high school. I've even designed and copyrighted my own scoring system. 

In other words, I was born into baseball. I only became an astrophysicist in college.

Even my knitting predates astrophysics. As with scoring, I feel like I've always known how to knit. (I guess you could say that was my mom's contribution, while baseball was my dad's.)

My interest in design came in pretty early. Originally, it was clothing. A la "Pretty in Pink," I designed my senior prom dress, though in that case I built it around a 1920's outfit that I found at a thrift store. I also became immersed in costume design in high school. (It turned out to be a great way to get out of class. "Sorry I wasn't there this morning. I was finishing one of the dresses for 'Gypsy.'" ;) That carried over to college, where--due largely to the fact that so few people sew anymore--I was designing for the "Main Stage" by the end of my freshman year. (By the way, I don't recommend this. Being the lead designer for "Cabaret" while working an astro research job and trying to keep up with your classes is guaranteed to cause burnout...)

My shift to knitting design started in grad school. I wanted projects that were portable--hence mostly socks and gloves--and knitting lends itself to a mathematical way of thinking that sewing does not. Also, I discovered that if I knit during meetings and conferences, I pay more attention and asked better questions. So yes, if you see me knitting at a sports analytics conference, it means I'm interested in the talk and not slacking off. :)
Source: Cast On Magazine

I've had patterns published in a number of magazines and have even been interviewed for a few. In those cases though, the question was, "How does an astrophysicist become interested in knitting anyway?" *sigh*

Anyway, there you go. I'm a baseball person who also happens to be a knitting designer. Oh, and somewhere along the line, I got a Ph.D. in Astrophysics.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Work-in-Progress: ECL Negro Leagues World Series Sweater

(Note: In my descriptions of this piece, you will see me use the terms "negro" and "colored." These are part of the historically-correct proper names "Negro Leagues" and "Eastern Colored League," and in no way do they reflect my personal views.)

This WIP is particularly special. The original is the oldest item of clothing associated with the Negro Leagues. It is currently on display at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City--one of my all-time favorite museums and not to be missed if you are within 100 miles of it. The sweater was donated by John Moores, former owner of the Padres. (In a bizarre coincidence, John happens to be an acquaintance of mine and was delighted to discover I was making a replica. :)

The accompanying plaque reads as follows:


The Eastern Colored League Hilldale Club of Philadelphia played the Kansas City Monarchs. The Hilldale team had special navy sweaters made to wear for the series with large ECL letters sewn across the chest that proudly indicated their Eastern League membership. This sweater is the oldest known clothing item from the Negro Leagues."

(Updated photo courtesy of @BSmile)
Alongside the display is a photograph of the Hilldale Club, in which one of the trainers, William "Doc" Lambert, can be seen wearing an ECL sweater. [Updated info courtesy of Tom Shieber.]

I was honored when Bob Kendrick, President of the NLBM, contacted me about producing a replica. Considering how few pieces have survived to the present day, it is truly a privilege to be given the opportunity to preserve a part of the Negro Leagues' legacy. 

If you are unfamiliar with the Negro Leagues, I encourage you to learn more about them. Not only did they play excellent baseball and produce some of the greatest and best-loved ballplayers of all time--Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson, to name a few--but they had teams with female owners and, in some cases, female players. (Interesting factoid: when Hank Aaron was acquired by the Milwaukee Braves, his replacement with the Indianapolis Clowns was second baseman--second basewoman?--Toni Stone.) As a woman in baseball myself, you can see why that level of integration is especially meaningful to me.

The NLBM is a small museum and worthy of support. If you would care to provide a donation (either memorabilia or monetary), more information can be found here.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Work-in-Progress: Ty Cobb Sweater

(First: As this blog is about knitting baseball replicas, you're probably going to come across some unfamiliar terminology. If you're a baseball fan, expect to see a lot of knitting jargon. If you're a knitter, you're going to learn about baseball and baseball history. In the end, we'll all have fun!)

My first work-in-progress (or WIP--see what I mean about knitting jargon? :) is a sweater once owned by Ty Cobb. My understanding is that he donated it to the Hall of Fame personally. Because Ty Cobb was such a well-known player and because its authenticity is so easy to confirm, this made for a great initial project.

photo credit: @JonnyDubSD
When I first saw it, the sweater was still being stored in the archives. However, this past summer it was included in the Hall of Fame's FanFest display at the All-Star Game in San Diego. (Hat tip to @JonnyDubSD for posting the pic.)

To my knowledge, there is only one known picture of Ty Cobb actually wearing this sweater. I don't know where @JDaniel2033 found it, but it certainly isn't in the Hall of Fame archives. (By the way, THANK YOU for posting it! It solved a lot of mysteries.) Tom Shieber, Senior Curator at the HOF, was able to identify the photo as being from the Detroit Tigers' 1921 Spring Training. This would have been Cobb's first year managing the Tigers, which jibes with the oral history associated with the sweater's original donation.

Credit: @JDaniel2033
I will be posting regular updates on the sweater's construction. Keep an eye out!

Sunday, September 4, 2016


As there seems to be so much interest in vintage baseball sweaters (and replicas thereof), I thought might be worthwhile to start a blog showing you what goes into making my stitch-by-stitch replicas. Posts will include progress on the pieces I'm working on, the backstory on some of those pieces, and interesting tidbits about the differences between sweater construction then and now.

Before I get into this though, I would like to thank the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum for providing me with the opportunity to create these replica sweaters, as well as to Knit Picks for donating the yarn used in their construction.

Expect more posts soon!