Cashing in Companies Making Millions on Negro League Apparel

Updated: November 19, 2007

Jim Robinson NEW YORK, NY.— Erik Stuebe hand-delivered his company’s first order, $500 worth of hats, to a Fisherman’s Wharf shop in 1994, but the president of Blue Marlin doesn’t make deliveries anymore.

In less than a decade, Blue Marlin has exploded into an apparel giant that expects to sell $25 million worth of retro-style clothing next year to the young and the hip. Ben Affleck and Heather Graham wear Blue Marlin stuff; so do Christina Aguilera and Jon Bon Jovi.

Negro Leagues-inspired apparel – Black Yankees T-shirts and Philadelphia Stars caps – account for 30% of Blue Marlin’s sales. “The Negro Leagues are an interesting chapter in the history of sports and civil rights,” says Stuebe. “A lot of people don’t realize African-Americans and Caucasians didn’t play on the same field 50 years ago.”

But critics say Stuebe built his fortune by ripping off the history of the Negro Leagues. “It’s a renegade company,” says Tom Busch, general counsel for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “Stuebe has built a successful business on the back of Negro League properties but he has felt no compunction to put something back.”

Says Jim Robinson, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs, Philadelphia Stars and Indianapolis Clowns during the 1950s, says: “Some of these companies are not interested in helping players. They are outlaws.”

Stuebe refuses to pay for the rights to club names or logos, Busch says, and the company was forced to pay the museum a $8,300 settlement after it allegedly infringed on the Kansas City Monarchs trademark, which the museum purchased from the team’s last owners.

Tags on Blue Marlin merchandise once claimed that “a portion of the proceeds from the sale of our Negro Leagues products is donated to the museum.” Busch says the only support the museum has ever received from Blue Marlin was the $250 Stuebe sent to purchase a membership.

Stuebe told the Daily News that his company has provided financial support to nine former Negro League players, but said he didn’t remember their names. He has not returned numerous calls since that late July interview.

Welcome to the wild, wild West of Negro League merchandising. Decades after they folded, the Negro Leagues have inspired fashionable apparel worn in hip clubs from Soho to Hollywood. But former players don’t benefit because most clubs didn’t register names and logos with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, leaving them in the public domain, free for Blue Marlin or anybody else to use.

But that doesn’t make it right, says Jerry Cohen, the co-owner of jersey giant Stall & Dean who in 1987 developed the first historically accurate Negro Leagues jersey line. “It’s important to give something back,” says Cohen, whose company is a museum licensee. “Without the contributions made by these players and teams, I don’t have a business.”

It’s impossible to estimate the size of the Negro League market because it is unregulated and unsupervised, says Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. But several companies, looking at the recent sales explosion in throwback jerseys, are predicting the market will boom in the next year.

Headmaster, for example, will introduce a line of “Barrier Breakers” jerseys next month honoring Jackie Robinson and others. The company, which paid the players or their estates for the rights to their names, expects up to $24 million in sales.

In 1993, Major League Baseball Properties established a Negro Leagues licensing program that divided the proceeds between the Kansas City museum, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Negro League Baseball Players Association, which represents men who played for at least three years prior to 1950. But the program has fizzled in recent years, and the proceeds are now so minuscule that MLB doesn’t even bother sending out checks.

The first check sent to Jose Pereira, a pitcher with the Baltimore Elite Giants who now lives in the Bronx, was for $191.87. The last one was for $2.36. “Something went wrong,” he laughs.

MLB Properties executive vice president Ethan Orlinsky says the program was damaged by baseball’s 1994-1995 work stoppage. Sales of baseball merchandise plummeted, and the Negro Leagues items licensed by MLB never recovered, he says, although MLB Properties is now exploring new ways to revive the program.

The museum, meanwhile, has contracts with 25 companies that make everything from jerseys to mouse pads. Those companies had $24 million in retail sales during the past 12 months, Busch says, and paid the museum about $1 million in royalties.

Many former players say that money should be used to help Negro Leaguers who are down and out. “”If you want to do something good, why not give a few bucks to some of these guys that need it?” asks former Stars catcher Stanley Glenn, the vice president of the Negro League players association.

Museum officials say they are sensitive to the plight of former players, but their mission is to preserve the legacy of the Negro Leagues.

“Without the museum,” says museum spokesman Bob Kendrick, “we’d risk losing a lot of history.”