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Monday, November 28, 2005
It's not easy being brown

By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

It was quite a Thanksgiving weekend, what with the Celtics finally debuting their black-trimmed alternates, Fred Funk's Skins Game skirt, and the entire Grambling football team being dipped in butter.

And yet there were rumblings of discontent across the land, at least among Uni Watch readers, many of whom complained that they missed the traditional NFL throwback outfits. Only the Cowboys went retro on Turkey Day, and some of them didn't even wear the striped throwback hose (a bit of sock sedition that Uni Watch hopes will result in hefty fines).

But there was still some notable throwback uni news on Thanksgiving, if you knew where to look. In this instance, that place was the NFL Network's "Six Days to Sunday" program. Thursday's episode featured Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner, who at one point was shown examining prototypes for a new throwback-style jersey and helmet for possible use next season.

Now, some of you might be saying, "Those look just like the team's current uni." Oh really? Uni Watch says thee nay, infidel! For while today's Browns uni may look a lot like the one from the Jim Brown era, there are some subtle distinctions. In fact, the Browns have a long history of design tweaks that are so inconspicuous, you've probably never noticed them. Fortunately, Uni Watch is here to bring you up to speed.

Let's start with the helmet. Since 1975, the Brownies have worn white facemasks. But back in the day, their masks were gray, just like the one on Lerner's prototype.

The real key, though, is in the jersey. At first glance, the team's old jersey looks mighty similar to the current one. But even after allowing for generational distinctions in sleeve length, auxiliary TV numbers, and the presence of the NFL logo, there are differences. The old design, for example, didn't have the "Browns" chest wordmark. More importantly, look closely and you'll see that the sleeve stripes on the current home jersey are ever so slightly separated by thin bands of brown, while the stripes of yore were fused together into a solid block -- again, just like the ones on Lerner's prototype. The stripes on the team's current road jersey are already fused, and have been since 1985, so the home throwback design would actually restore the team's sleeve stripe symmetry.

Subtle? Sure, but Browns fans live for those subtleties -- they don't really have much choice, since their team wears the league's most understated (OK, plain) uni. Reader George Ashburn is one of several Dawg Pound denizens who checked in after the Lerner sequence aired. "Browns fans immediately noticed the old-school sleeve stripes and the gray facemask," he says. "It quickly became the hot topic on message boards, where most fans approved of the new designs. The buzz over the possible new unis is huge."

Here, with a big assist from Ashburn, is a quick timeline of Cleveland's sleeve stripes:

1946-1968: Solid, non-spaced stripes on both the dark and white jerseys.

1969-1983: Offset stripes separated by thin bands of white on the white jersey, and by thin bands of brown on the brown jersey.

1984: A weird year, as then-owner Art Modell tries a completely different stripe pattern. "Everyone hated it," says Ashburn, and the design was quietly abandoned after one season.

1985-present: The team goes back to offset stripes on the dark jersey, and goes even further back to solid stripes on the white jersey, an inconsistency that continues to this day -- or until Randy Lerner gives final approval to that throwback design.

It's not clear if Lerner is planning any changes to the team's pants, which have historically been an even thornier thicket than the jerseys. Leaving aside the team's orange pants era (1975-1983), just try keeping up with the chromatic evolution of the piping on the white pants: First there was orange-brown-orange (1946-1974); then the sequence was reversed, to brown-orange-brown (1984); then back to orange-brown-orange (1985-1995); then wider orange-brown-orange (1999-2002); then back to brown-orange-brown when wearing the white jersey, and offset brown-orange-brown when wearing the brown jersey (2002-2004); and then back to the basic brown-orange-brown for all games (2005).

Yowza! With all that stripe-doctoring going on, it's no wonder nobody's had time to come up with a helmet logo (notwithstanding the uni numbers that were briefly worn). The team reportedly wore a "CB" helmet insignia during a 1965 preseason game, but this design is like the Area 51 of NFL helmets -- rumors of its existence abound, but nobody has ever produced photographic evidence. True believers insist that it looked like this replica.

Meanwhile, Ashburn approvingly notes that Lerner's respect for Browns tradition extends beyond jerseys and helmets: "Over the past few years," he says, "Brownie the Elf (which Art Modell hated, and had gotten rid of) has been used more and more." Uni Watch likes Brownie, too. But while Cleveland fans know him as a football-toting sprite, fans of the old St. Louis Browns knew Brownie as a baseball player -- he even appeared on their sleeves in 1952 and '53. Prior to that, Brownie was the spokescharacter for Brownie cameras, and before that he was featured in all sorts of children's games and puzzles, like this one, which dates back to 1891! Want to know more about the most unlikely character ever to end up as a logo mascot in two different sports? Check out Brownie's full story here.

Paul Lukas somehow resisted the urge to include a comprehensive overview of the Browns' socks. Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.