From the vantage point of our modern sports landscape, it might be hard to believe that our professional teams were once segregated—and not that long ago either. The first professional Black baseball league, The Negro National League, was formed in 1920, with Black players denied from competing in the MLB until 1947 when Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yep, that’s less than 100 years ago.
The history of the Negro Leagues is widely underappreciated, with broad awareness around its various teams and players lacking. The same goes for the history of Black professional basketball in America, with the NBA segregated until 1950.
Have you ever heard of the New York Renaissance (also known as the “Rens”), the first all-Black professional African-American-owned basketball team? Or how about Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, James “Pappy” Ricks, Frank “Strangler” Forbes, or Leon Monde, the Rens four starters who also all played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues? It’s high time these teams, their players, and their contributions to our country and American culture got the fanfare they deserve.
In partnership with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the Black Fives Foundation, and the Harlem Globetrotters, Lids has done just that, releasing its “They Gave Us Game” collection to honor the professional African American baseball and basketball teams of the past through a snazzy line of headwear, jerseys, and other apparel. These designs found inspiration in the vintage details of the original uniforms worn in the Negro Leagues, on basketball teams from the Black Fives Era, and by the Harlem Globetrotters, and comes at a time when there’s been a resurgence of retro sports design at large.
“For me, it was personal,” Jason Scott, the director of design and development at Lids who led on “They Gave Us Game,” tells me of the project.
“When I look at pictures of the old Homestead Grays, or the Kansas City Monarchs, or some of the guys that played for the Harlem Rens, I see myself in them,” Scott adds. “It’s an honor. I took it as a great responsibility to make sure that when we collaborated with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Globetrotters, and the Black Fives, we were making the best product possible and making sure that we were putting out something that can speak to the new culture; the new youth of the new demographic.”
The core of Scott and his team’s task was honoring the history and authenticity of these franchises while making products that would be appealing to Lids’ modern consumers.
“It’s almost like you’re a DJ. You’re taking a little bit from the old and sampling the new, and then you mash it up,” Scott previously shared in a discussion about the collection with sports designer Todd Radom on the Lids YouTube channel.
“Design is all about problem-solving,” he says. “We had these old logos, and some of them we could barely see, and some of them I had to recreate from photos. So the question was, how do we take these old elements and then bring them into the new? That was a great problem to solve as a designer.”
The finished product line undoubtedly meets the brief, composed of reimagined replica v-neck and button-up jerseys, shorts, fitted hats, and snapbacks infused with a retro-futuristic flair.
“When we got into the product development side, we had to pick out the right details, whether it was double tap, exact stitching or chain stitch, embroidery or where we’re going to use felt—all these little details come into play in trying to solve this problem of taking something old and then make it new,” Scott mentions.
While the designs themselves are decidedly dope, with jaunty script wordmarks and logotype imbued with an organic hand-drawn quality, the campaign itself is about so much more than drip.
“I think it’s important not just for Black Americans in our culture, but for American culture as a whole to understand,” says Scott. “It’s a celebration of Black culture, American culture, and just putting it all together. And then delivering something really cool that spoke to the new generation.”
“Overall, we wanted to bring awareness to the leagues, and we felt like with the reach and retail that we have that we could do that,” Lids senior vice president of buying and merchandising Bob Durda told Radom. “The common theme here is we wanted to bring a premium product to the marketplace that these organizations had never seen. We wanted them to be proud of it.”
Don’t worry, “They Gave Us Game” isn’t just a tokenistic campaign Lids launched to check off the Black History Month box as a brand. “When you look back over the years, you might see some vendors and retailers bring a few styles out every February, and that’s not what we want this to be about,” says Durda to Radom. “We want to launch it this February and March, but we’re going to be committed to these programs throughout the year.”
The collection will be iterated upon and added to by Scott, Durda, and company on an ongoing basis, with season two slated for release in the fall for the holidays. It will feature expanded offerings within these partnerships with the NLB Museum, the Globetrotters, and the Black Fives, including items like hoodies, varsity jackets, more fitteds, and side patches.
The collection is officially available for purchase on the Lids website and in over 700 retail locations. You can check out the Negro League Collection here, the Black Fives Collection here, and the Harlem Globetrotters Collection here.