Sports Collectors Digest: Marc Okkonen

By Marty Appel

The recent World Series pairing of the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox found a lot of columnists and commentators recalling the strange history of the uniforms worn by the two teams. From the Astros “Colt 45 revolver” uniforms at their inception, to the rainbow Cesar Cedeno era jerseys, there was plenty to smile about. As for the Sox, they were the first team to wear “throwback” uniforms – and fulltime at that – when the 1976 team took on the look of the 1902 team.

No one got more calls seeking his expertise on this than did Marc Okkonen (it’s a Finnish name, pronounced OAK-a-nen), who, in 1991, saw the culmination of years of research come to print with “Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century: The Official Major League Baseball Guide”.

It was a breakthrough book, especially since fans are so enamored by even subtle differences in uniforms.

Okkonen, born in Muskegon, Michigan 72 years ago, grew up a Detroit Tigers fan with vivid memories of the Tigers-Cubs World Series of 1945. “Harry Heilmann was the Tigers announcer, and he made a fan out of me,” says Marc. “He was a Hall of Fame outfielder, but he really was a terrific broadcaster too.”

When the Tigers were enjoying their 1984 world championship season under Sparky Anderson, Okkonen found his interest in baseball rejuvenated. That same year, Robert Redford’s “The Natural” was released, and in it, uniforms of National League teams were depicted.

“I knew some of them were wrong,” he says. “I think that was the spark that set me on my research.”

He had done commercial artwork professionally, and had studied at the University of Michigan in Dearborn. Now, determined to track down every major league uniform of the century, he began his research at the Library of Congress where microfilm of most major newspapers is housed. With that as a starting point, he moved to Albany, New York, so that he could continue research in nearby Cooperstown.

“They had great photo references at the Hall of Fame, and also real uniforms. I could see the multi-colored socks worn by the Giants in the ‘20s, for instance.”

The coffee table book of all Topps trading cards was also a big help.

And so he created a standard player, left hand on hip, a bat on the right shoulder, a featureless, blank face, and onto each form would he add the uniform. Home and road, caps, jerseys, sweatshirts, pants, stirrups, buttons or pullover, piping, sleeve patches, – even a representation of Brooklyn’s satin blue uniform in 1944. We see Kansas City’s green and gold appear in 1963, the Yankee pinstripes in 1912 (they weren’t the first, that would be Boston, Brooklyn and Chicago, all National League, in 1907), and the White Sox pinstripe with interlocking SOX as they wear now, in 1951. The first appearance of a number on the front came with the home jerseys of the ’52 Dodgers. Things start to get out of control with the Pirates of 1977, for whom five styles are shown. The book goes through the 1991 season, and a paperback version updated things two years later.

“It would be a challenge to update it today,” he says. “So many variations. I wouldn’t even include the occasional throwback uniforms teams were once a year.”

(The website for the Baseball Hall of Fame, in a feature called “Dressed to the Nines”, credits Marc and uses his artwork for a magnificent database through 1994 which they continue to keep updated with MLB Properties depictions).

As for colors, before there was color photography, Marc acknowledges that sometimes it was an educated guess, unless he saw a reference in print, or an actual uniform. “If it was dark, it was probably black or navy blue,” he says. They look pretty close in print anyway.

The two versions of the book were published by Sterling, better known as the publisher of the Guinness Book of World Records, and they had an impressive combined sale of some 50,000. They generally sell for $50 and up from used book dealers.

By the time the uniform book was published, Marc had already brought his first book to the public – a SABR publication called The Federal League of 1914-1915. On the inside back cover appeared all the uniforms in exactly the style that would be used for the uniform book. The model was out.

The Federal League book would also be a model for three hardcover volumes called Baseball Memories, 1900-1909, 1930-1939, and 1950-1959. These books captured the era – with uniforms, ballparks, sportswriters, players, managers, umpires, and team officials, presented city by city, a feast for the eyes. My own favorite is the meticulously drawn “aerial” views of turn of the century ballparks in the first volume, the only such representation available to us today, which shows the parks as though taken from the air, surrounded by city streets and buildings. Okkonen was a master at this, and it is a very important contribution to baseball ballpark history. Photos of sportswriters and broadcasters were also important additions to these three volumes.

“I’d love to do the teens, the ‘20s and the ‘40s and at least round out the set, but Sterling lost interest when the third volume didn’t do so well,” he says. We did a Ty Cobb Scrapbook that was not a good experience, and that seemed to be the end of it with them. But I’m appreciative that they put out my earlier books.”

Now settled back in his birthplace of Muskegon, Marc remains a Tigers fan and enjoys the occasional uniform variation that crops up on teams today. “I’m a purist, but I can also enjoy something interesting when it comes along,” he says.