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Starter via Facebook
Starter via Facebook

How Starter Jackets Came Unraveled

Starter via Facebook
Starter via Facebook

David Beckerman decided he was done peddling plaid golf pants. The 1966 University of New Haven graduate had been a salesman at a Duckster sporting goods store when he realized that the bland clothing on the racks held little interest for casual sports fans. So he borrowed $50,000, used $25,000 of his own savings, and opened Starter, a licensed sports apparel company, in 1971.

It took over 10 years, but when Starter hit, it hit big. Annual revenues eventually reached $400 million; musicians and athletes grew attached to the company’s iconic breakaway and satin jackets with their pro league emblems; demand was so high that kids were regularly being robbed—even killed—for them. Nike told Beckerman they’d buy him out. He refused.

Starter had all the pieces in place to become a merchandising giant. It wouldn’t last.

Starter via Facebook

Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Beckerman was obsessed with basketball. He played throughout school and into college, even participating in multiple leagues at a time. That love of athletics led him away from his initial plans to become a teacher and into the sporting goods business. By 1971, he had convinced an investor named Ruby Vine to help him launch Starter. The name was chosen for its simplicity—Beckerman thought all great brands were just one word—and because every athlete dreams of being a starting player.

Beckerman hired one salesman to peddle goods in three states: Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Satin jackets were made for bowling leagues, bar leagues, and high schools. Beckerman’s real goal, however, was to trade in on team loyalty. At the time, it wasn’t easy to find licensed sports apparel in stores. Beckerman thought it was silly a fan of the Chicago Cubs couldn’t walk into a store and buy a team jacket or hat.

After convincing Major League Baseball’s Licensing Corp. to grant him a license in 1976, Beckerman began producing jackets: Sales were a healthy $500,000 for that year. But Beckerman didn’t want to settle for official apparel—he wanted it to be what he defined as “authentic,” meaning players and coaches would wear the same goods a customer would see on the racks. Joe Torre, then-manager of the New York Mets, was an early convert: He was friends with a Starter truck driver, and began wearing the brand regularly.

Licenses for the NBA and NHL quickly followed. But Beckerman’s real coup came in 1983, when the NFL finally agreed to a deal after eight years of rejection. By this time, Starter had every major professional sport in its lineup, along with hundreds of colleges that were gathering fans thanks to televised games. The company also became a clothing consultant that could radically improve a team’s bottom line: When the Chicago White Sox switched to a Starter-branded color scheme, annual revenues for apparel sold at their stadium went from $100,000 to $4.5 million.

Having teams wear Starter was only part of Beckerman’s strategy. He knew consumers were brand-loyal, turning their nose up at anything that didn’t carry a familiar logo. Picking up on the trend of young adults wearing their hats backward, Beckerman applied Starter’s star logo to the back of the caps. Part of his time was also spent fielding calls from movie producers looking to secure permission to feature the jackets in films like Coming to America and My Cousin Vinny; his son, Brad, was plugged into the music scene and got Will Smith on board. Starter was everywhere.

In 1991, the brand was doing $200 million a year in sales. The demand for Starter merchandise was so intense that the company’s media mentions started to bleed into police blotters.

Starter via Facebook

Speaking to The Baltimore Sun in 1993, 12-year-old Damien Burgess said he owned and treasured a $69 Syracuse Starter jacket. And he knew better than to wear it after dark.

In the early 1990s, Starter’s appeal was a major factor in a string of robberies. The jackets, which were priced at up to $300, were so coveted that some incidents turned fatal: A 17-year-old in Ohio was shot dead for a Georgia Bulldogs jacket.  

The morbid publicity capped a tumultuous few years for Beckerman, who had suffered a bizarre string of misfortunes in the late 1980s: a warehouse fire, hurricane, and tornado all caused major inventory losses; a shipment from overseas contained 250,000 pieces of lice-infested merchandise; some thieves skipped the ponderous effort of robbing people individually by hijacking entire trucks.

The Biblical-scale damage barely made a dent in Starter's success: In 1992, Nike CEO Phil Knight offered to buy the company outright. Instead, Beckerman chose to take it public the following year while racking up over $350 million in sales.

In 1994, Major League Baseball canceled its postseason due to a players' strike. Traditionally the hottest time of the year for apparel sales, the lack of televised games hit Starter hard. Company spokesperson Ian Gormar told press the financial losses would be “significant.” The NHL lockout followed shortly thereafter. Suddenly, Starter was without the sports that drove its business—nothing could be “authentic” if players and trainers weren’t showing up for work.

After treading water for a few years, Starter declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999, citing over $120 million in debt to their major league creditors. The company changed hands several times before landing at Nike in 2004. By 2007, Starter was owned by Iconix, which currently issues limited-edition apparel for nostalgic Starter collectors.

Beckerman got out of the business, moving into real estate. The jackets may not be as common as they once were, but the love of the game never left him: now 72, he’s coaching basketball in Connecticut.

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The Ohio State University Archives
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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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