Monday, July 19, 2010

Royals In Monarchs Duds: Interview With Curt Nelson

Curt Nelson is now the director of the Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman Stadium, but for many years his duties with the club included working on the annual Salute to the Negro Leagues (SNL). Many thanks to Curt for taking the time to give us a peek behind the scenes of the annual Monarchs throwbacks.

What is the process of selecting Monarchs throwbacks each year? Who is involved? Are players consulted? Does the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) have a role?

Our friends at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum have played a big part in the selection of uniforms for many years. Dr. Ray Doswell is a wealth of information and knowledge about the Negro Leagues – he usually has an influence.

Is the road team involved in the decision about what uniforms they will wear?

Not really. However we do have to inform both Major League Baseball and our opposing ballclub about any plans we have to wear these specialty uniforms. In my years working on this project MLB was always supportive of our efforts and each of the teams we worked with were happy to be part of the event.

Do you remember why throwbacks were not worn for the SNL game in 2002?

I’m not sure there was any single factor in that decision. As I remember most other aspects of the ‘salute’ remained in place that season from the promotional caps for fans, the former Negro League player autograph session and the on-field tribute during pre-game. From an amateur historian perspective, I’m glad we returned to the on-field uniforms as a more visible tribute.

What outfitter(s) have the Royals used to produce the uniforms? (I've seen Ebbets Field Flannels credited at least once.) Do they provide the bulk of the research on Negro Leagues uniforms, or is that done more on the Royals end?

Ebbets Field Flannels did work on at least one of our Monarchs replicas, but that was before I was working on the project. Over the eight years or so I was involved we worked with a supplier out of California called AIS. They always did great work recreating some jerseys from a single old photograph. I believe AIS has also done quite a bit of work for the movie industry over the years regarding baseball uniforms.

The research for any particular uniform style was a group effort by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, AIS and the Royals. We worked together to try and develop authentic uniforms to exact detail whenever possible.

2005 game with blank, matching batting helmets

2005 is the only year I've seen where the Royals added matching batting helmets to the throwbacks. To me, it really jars the look when batters have that bright blue Royals helmet on. Is it something the team just doesn't think about, or is it a cost issue?

To be honest I’m not sure what the issues behind that are – as you noticed it was done at least once in recent years. There may be a comfort factor for the players involved. Like gloves and shoes, helmets can over time be broken-in to conform to the individual characteristics of each player. Any sudden one game change might be a bit jarring to their system as well – that is just a guess at one factor on my part.

Any memories from SNL games that stand out?

The game in 2008 against the Giants (Royal Giants) was perhaps the most memorable - twenty-one (21) runs scored in that game and not a single home run. The Giants jumped out to a 6-0 lead after the top of the third and extended their lead to 10-3 in the fifth. Then the Royals stormed back with two in the fifth, five in the sixth and the go ahead run in the seventh to eventually win 11-10. Interestingly enough that game was started by the two-time defending NL Cy Young Award Winner Tim Lincecum, who lasted only five innings despite being given a 6-0 lead.

Many of the great moments for me relate more to the former Negro Leaguers who have joined us over the years. Personally the most memorable was probably
2003 when Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe, better known as "Double Duty" for his propensity to pitch the first game of a doubleheader and catch the second, was here to throw out the game’s first pitch. "Double Duty" was just a week shy of his 101st birthday that Sunday afternoon (June 29 vs St, Louis Cardinals/Stars) and his catcher was none other than Kansas City’s Buck O’Neil, a spry 91 years old.

I’m just guessing, but I feel sure that was the most senior battery in the history of the game!

Are the uniforms always polyester? If so, what is the reason flannel isn't used?

The Ebbets Field flannels were just that and some teams I believe still use those. In the years I was ordering the uniforms we always used the standard polyester sandknit. Player comfort is certainly a factor along with the cost and probably most importantly the durability the more modern material provides. Even though we used the sandknit the sizing was always done to try and match the larger more baggy type look the uniforms of the era actually had on the field.

I assume most of the bases for recreating these uniforms come from black and white photos - How are colors determined? Is there a lot of guesswork?

There are a few color photos here and there, but not many. This is an area were the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is invaluable to the process. Their extensive knowledge of the different leagues and teams give you the best chance to faithfully match the colors of the original uniforms. Most – though not all – of what you are looking for colorwise has to do with the uniform trim as the body of most were off-white at home and gray for the road. However that is not always the case and there is some educated guesswork that comes into play.  

I know the Royals have been donating the uniforms from SNL games to the NLBM in recent years. Can you talk a little about that program?

This became a tradition several years ago and serves as a fund raiser in some respects for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Royals donate the game worn jerseys (primarily the jerseys though sometimes the pants as well) of both teams to the NLBM who can then place them in auctions to raise money or do whatever they see fit with them. Whenever possible we try and get the players (Royals and visitors) to sign their jersey to increase the value even a bit more. Each player is also given the option of outright purchasing their own uniform if they so desire by making a contribution directly to the NLBM here in Kansas City.

Do you ever hear feedback from players? Have any sense if they generally enjoy wearing Monarchs jerseys, don't care, don't like it, etc.? Any specific player reactions you recall?

Most players really like the chance to wear the uniforms and step back in time into the great history of the game. For the Royals, we probably wear more throwbacks then most teams because of the notoriety of the Kansas City Monarchs. Over the years many teams have scheduled their own Negro League Salutes when we are in town – which is a real tribute to the historical significance of the Kansas City Monarchs. I know we have worn Monarchs uniforms in Seattle, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee to name just a few in the last several years.

Torii Hunter, 2005

One player that stands out for me was Torii Hunter in his days with the Twins. Torii had made several trips to the NLBM and has been a strong supporter of their work over the years. I know he really liked the 1909 St. Paul Gophers uniforms we had the Twins wearing in
2005 – he bought his to keep in his personal collection. I thought we might have an advantage that day because the Gophers uniforms were dark from head to toe and had really larger collars – all on a hot (though not scorching 91 degrees) July afternoon in Kansas City. But the Twins outlasted us 3-2 in twelve innings.

The 2007 uniforms are a bit of a mystery to me; the Royals claimed they were a 1945 Monarchs style, but that's not a style I've found associated with 1945 anywhere. In fact, I don't think I've seen that jersey in those colors anywhere. It looks like the classic 1942 jersey done in different colors. The only jerseys I've seen associated with 1945 are these. Just curious if you have any info on where the design of the 2007 throwbacks came from.

To be honest I don’t remember what the circumstances were with the 2007 uniforms. Though I do remember the NLBM helping us outline salutes for two legends within those uniforms that season. There was a sleeve patch with ‘42’ to honor Jackie Robinson. As you remember he played for the Monarchs in 1945 and in 2007 we were celebrating the 60th Anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The caps also had ‘22 Buck O’Neil’ on the side to remember Buck on this first Salute to the Negro Leagues game at Kauffman Stadium after his passing in 2006. On that day each member of the Royals coaching staff wore #22 in honor of Buck’s being the first-ever African-American Coach in the history of Major League Baseball.

Which years were you in charge of the uniforms? Who is in charge now?

If memory serves me right, I think I was involved in the project from 2000-2008. It was always a lot of work and a lot of coordination with many people both inside and outside the ballclub – but it was also always a lot of fun and an honor to help preserve the history of the Negro Leagues and especially our hometown Kansas City Monarchs. I believe our promotions team headed by Kasey Schweitzer is heading up the project this season.

Thanks for your interest in the topic. I enjoy the colorful history of baseball uniforms and this was always a project I was proud to play a small part in each season.

you Curt!

This year's salute is coming up on Saturday, July 31st. The Royals will wear a 1949 Monarchs look and the Orioles will pay tribute to the early 1950s Baltimore Elite Giants.


  1. Thanks for your post on Negro Leagues Day. Let me help Curt by answering one of the questions you posed. Of the SNL uniforms used by the Royals, two uniforms were "inspired" by the Monarchs of 1945 and 1949, but were not considered authentic "throwbacks." Some liberties were taken because (1) the Royals needed to wear white or lighter colors as the home team, (2) the onfield and giveaway cap are often the deciding factors for which uniform is worn on the field. The '45 tribute uniforms were inspired by the colors of the cap for the '45 team. The Blue and Gold cap was chosen for that tribute that year. The '49 tribute is similar for this year, as the uniform is inspired by a road gray uniform, but made white/off white for the Royals home game.

    Dr. Raymond Doswell

  2. Dr. Doswell, thanks so much for the comment and clarification! All the work the NLBM and the Royals do to honor the Monarchs and the Negro Leagues is appreciated.