Written by Greg LiCalzi
If you grew up in the 1980’s, you remember Salem Sportswear’s iconic t-shirts portraying professional athletes in cartoonish, caricature form. Salem designed shirts celebrating individual players, All-Star and Championship teams, and regional favorites like Kelly Tripucka and Mark Gastineau. Early on, Salem locked in licensing deals with the four major sport leagues and Players Associations to design the most creative ‘Big Head’ renderings of the era’s greatest sports heroes.
Salem Sportswear began in New England back in 1984. Bill Fickett and Jim McCaddin were college friends from the University of New Hampshire and opened Fit-To-A-Tee, a retail and wholesaling outlet. Their business was pretty successful, then one day Fickett had an idea to combine his love of sports and his company.
Things really took off when the Celtics beat the Lakers to win the 1984 NBA Championship. Fickett called Bob Woolf (Larry Bird’s agent at the time) and asked if Bird would appear on a shirt. Larry Legend agreed to have his likeness used and Larry Johnson, a prominent Boston Globe cartoonist, was brought on to do the illustration. The ‘Massachusetts State Bird’ caricature shirt was born and became a powder keg. Bird’s popularity was off the charts and sales skyrocketed. Ultimately, Salem Screen Printers was brought in to provide large scale help with both printing and marketing. Salem bought Fit-To-A-Tee and within a year was able to secure licensing contracts with the NFL and NBA Players Associations.
The artists tasked in illustrating the shirts came from several different places. Bruce Stark, the legendary illustrator for publications like TV Guide, Time, and Mad magazine, created many of the designs. Other artists were involved, including Allen Mudgett. We talked to ‘Mudge’ about his time with Salem Sportswear and he gave us an inside look into how the company operated in those early days.
Greg LiCalzi: How did you begin designing Salem Sportswear shirts?
Allen Mudgett: I was taking fine arts class at UMASS, Lowell. I was introduced to Doug Vennard (Art Director at Salem Sportswear), who also lived in the same hometown. Doug’s reference got my foot in the door at Salem where I started as a screen printer in the mid-1980s. Eventually I got an opportunity to work in the graphics department before we had contracts with the major sports organizations. Once Salem got the contracts, the demand for big head caricature tees became insane. It created the opportunity for some of us in-house artists to work on the shirts. Doug and I took advantage of that.
Did you get the opportunity to work with Bruce Stark?
Yes. Bruce was a whole other tier of artist. He was nationally recognized from his illustrations on the covers of Time and TV Guide. He was the artist that eventually replaced Larry Johnson, the Boston Globe caricature guy. They had contrasting styles. Bruce went away from the pen and ink line drawings and instead went with India ink washes and tonal values. It was a totally new look and translated well when the art was half-toned and printed on the tees. Bruce was the lead guy and got the most prominent athletes. Name a sport and he caricatured all the superstars like Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretzky. I would get many of the second tier players of the time.
Like Roy Tarpley?
Yeah, people like that. Although, I did eventually get the opportunity to do several of the superstars of that era for ‘Six Pack’ and Lottery themes as well as special events including the Super Bowl, World Series and the NBA Finals.
Your shirts look similar to Bruce’s work…
Well, I was a college kid. I hadn’t developed a style yet. Originally when Larry Johnson was the lead artist, we all used pen and ink and implemented the cross hatching style to achieve shading. After Bruce Stark came aboard, I was given the green light to adapt to the technique that he used. without actually copying his style. Bruce was light years ahead of me and a seasoned professional, so I couldn’t really duplicate his work anyway. I was fortunate to have met Bruce a couple times. He was a very humble man. He also offered up a few tips of the trade that I still utilize to this day. The guy was a legend.
Was your design process based on photos of the athletes or meeting with them in person?
Back then, they actually had a process and a woman who was in charge of collecting reference materials. She would scour the sports universe (before Google Images), and collect and catalog clippings from Sports Illustrated and a whole host of other magazines. Media guides were also prominent and they provided nice, glossy head shots of each of the athletes. I would use those references and have my drafting table set up with six to a dozen pictures of the athlete around me.
Do any of your designs standout?
Local sports stars stood out for me. I remember when I did Doug Flutie upon his arrival to the Patriots. He was a Boston College hero so I spent all this time doing his sketches and wanting to get it just right because he represented the entire New England area.
By the early 1990’s, Salem Sportswear was no longer a small business. In 1992 they had sales of $119 million and employed over 1,100 people. That’s $119 million in sales of t-shirts in one year! They went public and ultimately were acquired in 1993 by Fruit of the Loom, Inc.
The caricature shirt craze eventually faded out, but these vintage Salem shirts continue to be highly sought-after and collected. Many trade hands on eBay for over triple what they originally cost. In recent years, there has been a Big Head renaissance as Mitchell & Ness and Homage have produced new retro versions, but none will ever compare to the originals from Salem Sportswear.