Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Goodbye To Our Friend Mr. Surkin

I received a phone call early in May from my dear friend and sometime mentor, sometime competitor, Peter Capolino. Peter founded Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. in Philadelphia around the same time that Lisa and I were starting up EFF, and I suppose it was inevitable that the only two lunatics attempting to re-create a dead athletic apparel product at precisely the same time when the entire U.S. manufacturing base was in serious decline get together. We all became fast friends in those early, heady days, and often shared resources and knowledge. (More on that friendship at another time). Peter was calling to tell me that Martin Surkin, owner for many decades of Maple Manufacturing Company was not long for this world, and that perhaps I should call him and say my goodbyes. I had not spoken to Mr. Surkin in several years, and he sounded initially distant and somewhat confused by my call, though he fortunately soon realized who I was, and we had a pleasant, though brief, chat. I was grateful that I had a chance to express my thanks to him and tell him how much he meant to us.

Back in the late 1980s when we decided to start a baseball clothing company there were still a number of old time manufacturers who made the very items from the "golden age" of athletic apparel we were trying so hard to emulate in our business. My first caps, for example, were made by a little company in Boston's Chinatown who used to deliver the Red Sox hats right to the clubhouse at Fenway. There were still a few woolen mills and jacket makers around (all gone now), and I visited or called all of them in the first years of EFF's existence, soaking up every bit of knowledge I could. Maple was one such company, and I met Martin Surkin and his sister Pearl through Peter, who was using Maple to make all of his flannel baseball jerseys at the time. Mr. Surkin had acquired Passon Sporting Goods around 1933. Its founder, Harry Passon, was instrumental in outfitting the many black and Jewish athletic teams in the Philadelphia area and was also a co-founder (with Eddie Gottlieb) of the Philadelphia SPHAs professional basketball team.

Going to Maple was always a bit of an adventure. The company - on Noble Street in the Callowhill section of Philadelphia - was in the Art Deco Lasher Building. What once had been a beautiful, modern edifice was now a crumbling relic. The elevator ride to Maple's offices and factory was a bit creepy, and on my ride up to the fourth floor I always felt vaguely like I was traveling through ghosts of Philadelphia's industrial past, which in a way I was. Although once in the confines of Maple it was perfectly fine, by the 1990s neither the building nor the neighborhood were places one would want to linger after dark.

Mr. Surkin - I could never quite bring myself to call him "Martin", it seemed almost disrespectful - was an interesting man. He walked with a pronounced limp (a vestige of childhood polio), carried a cane, and smoked a pipe. He never married. He lived with his sisters Natalie (who passed away before I met him) and Pearl, who did Maple's bookkeeping. On his desk was always a jar of pretzels. He seemed to have no hobbies or vices other than buying himself a new Cadillac every year, and going to DiNardo's on Race Street for steaks or crab nearly every night. He was the first person I knew who watched his stock portfolio on a computer. He was thoughtful, very intelligent, enjoyed a good joke, but did not suffer fools gladly. To me he was a wise old sage, and I would pester him questions about how things were done in the good old days. I always got the impression he must have been somewhat amused that these younger people had so much fascination for something that to him must have been old hat.

Pearl handled the bookkeeping, and she was a character in her own right. Under five feet tall, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and enough hairspray to turn her head into a silver helmet, she could play the sweet Jewish grandmother. But if you crossed her (especially if you owed Maple money) she could be tough as nails. Her worst insult was "oh go sit on a tack!" And she meant it.

Martin and Pearl Surkin

Mr. Surkin may have seemed like a kindly grandfather at times, but he could be very tough about business. Throughout much of the 1990s, we made David Letterman's annual big Christmas gift to staff and friends, which was always a varsity style wool and leather jacket. These jackets went to famous friends like Johnny Carson and Tom Hanks, as well as to the show staff. Dave himself took an active role in the design each year, often designing and re-designing the jacket right up until the point of production. This order was a big deal for us - both financially and for the prestige we gained from it. One particular year, it must have been around 1994, we had Maple make the Letterman jackets, and as Christmas approached, we grew concerned about Maple's delivery. This concern was heightened when Dave's personal assistant Laurie Diamond called me (almost never good to pick up the phone and have "Diamond", as she liked to call herself, on the other end). She was clearly alarmed that the jackets were not going to make it in time, and franly,  so was I. No Christmas jackets meant no $50,000 payment, which funded the company through the first slow post-holiday months; a very disappointed David Letterman, and one very pissed off Laurie Diamond. I made a call to Mr. Surkin. Ebbets Field had a bit of an overdue balance to Maple at the time, and Mr. Surkin made it clear that without us becoming current on that balance, he could not assure us that the David Letterman Christmas order would have priority in his production schedule. Not having the cash on hand, I explained that when we got paid for the Letterman jackets we would have plenty of money to pay our back balance, and how it would adversely affect my business if we were to not deliver these jackets on time, but Mr. Surkin was unmoved: The jackets "might" make it, or they might not. No guarantees, when I guarantee was what I desperately needed.

I made a snap decision to take the red eye that very night to Philadelphia and try to take charge of the situation. For a week I trudged into the Noble St. factory at 9 AM with the rest of the employees. Mr. Surkin neither hindered nor helped me. Early on I figured out who made things happen in the factory and made sure I became friendly with the people who would decide my fate - or at least my relationship with my biggest and most important customer. I begged, pleaded, and cajoled Maple's employees to push my jackets through the production line. I pressed jackets, trimmed threads, counted garments, and packed them into boxes. This being a Union shop, perhaps the worse thing was seeing boxes of jackets nearly ready for Fedex at 5 PM, but when 5 o'clock struck, the shipper put his hands down, even though five more minutes of taping boxes shut would have meant dozens of Letterman Christmas jackets going out that day instead of the next. The situation was not made better by periodic phone calls from Laurie Diamond, who had somehow tracked me down at Maple, demanding progress reports and assurances. I dealt with all the pressure by copious drinking in the evenings with a few sympathetic Mitchell & Ness employees and their friends. But the next morning I would make my way through the December muck back to my work station at Maple. On my breaks I would retreat to the fortress of an office where Martin and Pearl held forth. I would eat my lunch while behind me Pearl would type Maple's invoices by hunt-and-peck method on an electric typewriter (she refused to learn to use a computer), while smoking a cigarette and carrying on a running commentary to no one in particular on the quality of their customers. "Six jackets," tap-tap, drag, puff...."Like he's doing us a favor!"...TAP, TAP, TAP!

The Lasher Bldg., home of Maple Mfg.

By the end of my week-long "apprenticeship" at the factory the jackets got out - barely. To add insult to injury, I missed my flight back to Seattle when the airport shuttle driver agreed to turn around at JFK and take a passenger to La Guardia when the passenger realized he was headed to the wrong airport. I capped off my trip East by spending a miserable night at an airport hotel. We paid for the Letterman jackets as well as the back balance we owed, and despite the stress this experience caused me I always respected Mr. Surkin for taking the stand he did. I knew it was just business - just like Mr. Surkin knew our decision to give the Letterman jacket order to a different supplier the following year was just business.

 We continued to use Maple periodically over the next several years, but advancing age and a changing sporting goods market meant Mr. Surkin finally had to sell Maple in the late 1990s. The new owners were full of big plans, but they ran the company into the ground almost instantly, ending over 60 years of apparel-making heritage. In the meantime Pearl passed away and Mr. Surkin eventually had to move into an assisted living facility.

Mr. Surkin passed away on May 12th, 2012 at the age of 92, a few days after our phone call. He was a friend to us, and a mentor whom I learned a great deal from. I keep a Maple catalog from 1941 on my desk and leaf through it from time to time. The rough, aged paper feels good in my hands, and the work Mr. Surkin did over 70 years ago is still an inspiration. I am a better businessman - but more importantly a better man - for having known him.