Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Uni Watch: Who Gives a Schnitt? We do!

At the convergence of sports and design lies Uni Watch by Paul Lukas, who founded "athletics aesthetics" journalism with a column of the same name in the Village Voice. It is one of my great honors in my professional life to have had columns published on Uni Watch in the past, and today they're running my latest.

That's right, we're taking our quest for a Milwaukee Schnitts Turn Back the Clock game in 2019 to the next level, with a column on this influential site.

Give them a click here; the article is reprinted below for archival purposes.

A Modest Proposal for the Chicks’ 75th
By Chance Michaels

Uni Watch readers with long memories may recall that way back in 2013 I collaborated with the Milwaukee Brewers on a 1913 Turn Back the Clock event, commemorating the centennial of the old American Association Brewers' first championship. I had lobbied the club for some time to recognize that chapter in the Cream City's baseball history, and was fortunate enough to see it come to pass.

Today, I'm trying to do it again.

Back in March, I called for the Brewers to recognize the Milwaukee Schnitts in 2019. And just this week, my public campaign kicked into high gear (complete with obligatory petition).

The who, you say?

Okay, howsabout the Milwaukee Chicks? Does that one ring any bells?

The Milwaukee Chicks, also known as the Milwaukee Schnitts, originally intended to be known as the Milwaukee Brewettes, was the city's entry in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

We've all seen A League of Their Own. You can't be a baseball fan if you haven't; it's in the fine print on the back of your ticket. So we all know the basic story. Major League owner is concerned that the draft will take his best players and hurt the sport, so he recruits young women to play in a small Chicago-based league. They play hard, win over fans, Dottie drops the ball, and the Racine Belles win the 1943 Championship. Right?

As it turns out, the film isn't that far off. Sure, they fictionalize elements, trading Walter Harvey and his Harvey Bars for Philip K. Wrigley and his family's eponymous gum. And it was the Kenosha Comets, not the Rockford Peaches, who lost to Racine in the championship series. But many of the elements had a basis in historical fact: the charm schools and chaperones, the former big-leagers managing, the women recruited from all over the country who came to the Midwest to play the game they loved.

There's a lot for us to love in the design history of the league. Wrigley (and his partner Branch Rickey) introduced a standard AAGPBL uniform template, designed in part by Otis Shepard. Shepard was a master of mid-century design who worked on all Wrigley's projects. He started with the gum company, and in 1937 moved over to the Cubs, bringing us some truly classic uniforms. Seems natural Wrigley would tap him again for the All-American League. Shepard worked with Phil's wife Helen Wrigley and utility player Ann Harnett of the local Chicago leagues. Taking inspiration from figure skating costumes and tennis whites, they created a one-piece, short-sleeved, belted "tunic" that ended in a flared skirt. The tunic itself was made in different colors for the various teams. They topped it off with a one-size-fits-all caps with elastic bands inside the crowns.

The first four players signed by the league show off prototype uniforms. Back, left to right: Clara Schillace, Ann Harnett (who helped design them) and Edie Perlick. Front, seated: Shirley Jameson. The letters reflect the league's original name "All-American Girls Softball League", changed midway through the first season. Photo credit: Northern Indiana Center for History Collection

Aside from the colors, the only team identifiers were a city initial on the caps and a patch on the players' chests. I find those patches fascinating, since they were all adapted from the home cities' official seals, surrounded by the name of the city and state. That's a detail that was changed for the movie, as the costume designer removed the state name and replaced it with the club nickname.

Personally, I think the filmmakers were trying to downplay the Midwest roots and universalize the story. Or maybe they just thought we're too accustomed now to seeing team names on uniforms. In any case, if you're buying "Rockford Peaches" merchandise that says "Peaches" it's from the movie, not the league.

Shepard also turned his design talents to the program. The league used one standard design for all teams, featuring his classic artwork on the cover. Simple, and simply gorgeous.

Back on the diamond, the project started well. The inaugural season featured four teams: the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches, Racine (Wisconsin) Belles, South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox, and Kenosha (Wisconsin) Comets. For the sophomore year Wrigley and Rickey decided to expand their league. Specifically, they expanded into Minneapolis and Milwaukee, two mainstays in the American Association, which was a high-level independent minor league at the time. Two outstanding baseball markets, with good stadiums in place, not too long a bus ride from the existing the AAGPBL markets. Must have seemed like a good idea.

It was a disaster.

The Minneapolis team, originally named the "Millerettes" after the AA club, was forced out of the stadium they shared with the Millers and played the second half of the season on the road, earning the nickname "Minneapolis Orphans". Understandable, perhaps, that the Orphans finished the 1944 season 45-72, a whopping 26½ games out of first place.

The Milwaukee club, there was something better. They were also given a kid-sister name, the "Brewettes", but as far as I can tell nobody ever actually called them that. By the time the season started the two great Milwaukee newspapers had each bestowed a different moniker upon the women.

The Milwaukee Journal, the city's evening paper, dubbed them the "Schnitts". For those of you not from Milwaukee (or Munich), that is an old Bavarian term for a half-pour of beer. The bartender gives a quick burst out of the keg, and your glass ends up filled more or less equally with beer and foam. It's usually intended to tide you over at the end of your night of drinking, a sort of "one for the road" when you don't want a whole one. Trust the wags in Milwaukee to employ an obscure tavern term. Schnitts had also been the name of a short-lived low-level minor league baseball club that shared the Brewers' Borchert Field in the nineteen-teens, so maybe the Journal's sportswriters also had long memories.

Not to be outdone, the morning paper, the Milwaukee Sentinel, came up with its own nickname: the "Chicks". Although today this may seem an outdated and somewhat-sexist term (what, was "broads" taken?), there's actually a bit of cleverness behind it. The Milwaukee manager was a former outfielder named Max Carey, who would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans' Committee in 1961. Somebody at the Sentinel remembered an RKO Radio Picture called Mother Carey's Chickens, or the 1911 novel it was based on, about a close-knit hardscrabble family at the turn of the last century. Max Carey = Mother Carey, Chickens = Chicks, and there you have it.

It's worth remembering that AAGPBL names were relatively unofficial in those days. Just as they wore city/state on their uniforms, the league used city names to identify them in all league documents. The ads they ran in the Milwaukee papers identified the team variously as "Our Milwaukee Team", or a combination of "Milwaukee's Own Team" and simply "Milwaukee".

Myself, I tend to prefer "Schnitts" as a moniker. Sure, it sounds a bit rude, but drinking slang appeals to me. And even if the half-pour could be read as a joke comparing the women to the "Brews" with whom they shared the ballpark, it still seems a lot more respectful than "Chicks". The latter is, however, the name in common use today.

It wasn't until after the 1944 season that the league really fully embraced the "Chicks" name, but by then they were gone. A good deal of the team's problem was having to take leftover dates at Borchert Field after the Brewers had their pick; both clubs made the postseason, but while Casey Stengel's Brewers were thrilling the hometown crowds at Borchert Field, the Schnitts were forced to play all seven games of their championship series on the road. That second-hand schedule also meant they played most of their games in the afternoon, while other AAGPBL clubs played the more preferable night games. And all the while, the league was asking for 95¢ for General Admission, $1.40 for Box Seats and Reserved. Exactly the same prices that the Brewers were asking and getting.

The league tried a series of promotional events to get fans out to Borchert Field—including double-headers with a Milwaukee Symphony concert(!)—but in the end the hurdle was too high to leap. The league moved the Schnitts to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they were forever the Chicks even though Mother Carey didn't move with them, leaving the club to become the AAGPBL's president. And that's another reason to prefer "Schnitts", being solely used in Milwaukee. The Minneapolis Orphans moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they became the "Daisies".

The Schnitts, never truly beloved, quickly faded into baseball obscurity. As did the league itself. Then the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum launched its "Women in Baseball" exhibit, Penny Marshall made A League of Their Own, and people started to have an interest in these oft-forgotten teams. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee interviewed a number of former Chicks players for an oral history project entitled "The Forgotten Champs". And even with the increased attention, I'd wager most baseball fans in Milwaukee itself know far less about their one-season club than I've written here so far.

Now, our current Brewers are better than most. They hosted a reunion of AAGPBL players back in 2000, and have a small tribute to their predecessors in a Miller Park concourse. The effort was there, but the final result is somewhat lacking. The uniform on display is terribly inaccurate; the patch is all the wrong colors, filled with too much detail, and insists on adding the nickname they never wore.

And that's why I'm doing this. We can do better by this club, we can do better by these players. 2019 is the 75th Anniversary of that single-season wonder, those Milwaukee women who brought home a championship. A perfect time to educate, to commemorate, to have some fun in the process.

So, now we've covered the why. Let's talk about the what. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking about the short-skirted tunics. But we have the perfect template for a male version of the Schnitts' uniform, that worn by Max Carey himself. Going back to A League of Their Own, think about the Tom Hanks character.

Managers wore a version of their clubs' uniform on a traditional baseball template. In Carey's case, it was a solid white flannel uniform, with the city seal over his heart. As with the other teams, it was a variation on Milwaukee's four-lobed city seal, rendered in gorgeous black, red, and white chain stitch.

The uniform numbers were single-color black felt. They used a style originally designed for the Cubs by Shepard back in the 1930s. Can't blame Otis for playing some of his old hits; it's a beautiful number font, simple and elegant yet distinctive.

I had this custom jersey created by the good folks at Ebbets Field Flannels, to give us an idea of what the Brew Crew could look like.

I chose "24" for the back because the AAGPBL Players Association credits 24 women as having played for the club.

It's important that the Brew Crew uses the correct uniform logo. We've already seen the inaccurate one currently on display at Miller Park. The AAGPBL Players' Association recently introduced a new version for their own merchandise. It's much closer than the other, but still not quite right. The most accurate rendition should be black and red, with thick lines to indicate chain stitching.

Original game-worn 1944 logo patch2018 modern interpretationOriginal inaccurate interpretation

The caps were a little more difficult to track down. If I could wring three totally separate full-length articles out of inconsistencies surrounding the merchandise of a Major League team as famous as the Brooklyn Dodgers, it should surprise nobody that the few Schnitts caps commercially available are all various degrees of incorrect.

Until recently, the AAGPBL Players Association (which has assumed control of league trademarks) licensed reproductions of the teams' uniforms. The cap they offered for Milwaukee was black with a red bill and squatchee, sporting a black M in red circle. The erstwhile Cooperstown Ball Cap Company also made a version for sale, but theirs had a gold circle with narrow black M. Neither of these was correct.

Looking at this picture Vivian (Anderson) Sheriffs at an AAGPBL event shortly before her death in 2012, and a picture of her from 1944, you can see how inaccurate the CBCC cap really is.

From period photographs, we know that the Chicks'/Schnitts' cap logo was a sans-serif black "M" in concentric circles of gold/black/gold.

Translated into a modern cap template from New Era, it would look something like this:

And yeah, I know. Logo creep. But we can only fight one battle at a time. At least I made it red and not gold.

So there you have it. We could have a unique and fitting Turn Back the Clock tribute to this amazing group of women.

We could have trivia and photos on the Miller Park scoreboard. Perhaps a bobblehead giveaway. Or a t-shirt. Maybe the Brewers could screen A League of Their Own after the game. They could also invite members of the WWII Girls Baseball Living History League, who keep the AAGPBL alive by playing vintage games by 1943 rules in vintage uniforms. Sadly, there are no surviving players from the Schnitts' 1944 roster, but some of them had daughters and granddaughters, nieces and grandnieces, who could throw out a first pitch (possibly even the families of third-sacker Vivian Anderson or pitcher Sylvia Wronski, the only Milwaukeeans on the team).

I know this seems like a quixotic quest. But I've been lucky enough to see it happen before. In 2013 we introduced a whole new generation of Milwaukee baseball fans to the heroics of a club that played decades before most of them were born. Given the contributions of these women to the history of baseball in our country, they deserve no less.

I hope you will help. If you're in Milwaukee, contact the Brewers and let them know what we want. If you're a season ticket holder, contact your rep. And everyone please sign the petition at Together, we can make this happen.

Spread the word, help the cause. We can do it!

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