Tony Dobrowolski: Sign language
'Hit Sign. Win Suit."
It's hard to beat that slogan as a sales pitch. How simple, yet direct. When the Brooklyn Dodgers played at Ebbets Field over 50 years ago, those two sentences were almost as well known as "play ball."
Now, Pittsfield isn't Brooklyn. But like Brooklyn, Pittsfield does have a rich baseball history. And thanks to two local merchants, Wahconah Park now has its own version of that famous iconic sign by Brooklyn clothier Abe Stark that once graced Ebbets Field's outfield fence.
The Pittsfield Cooperative Bank and one of the Berkshire's leading clothiers, Steven Valenti, are the ones who came up with the idea. The local version of "Hit Sign. Win Suit" went up at the beginning of the Pittsfield Suns season in June, and sits on the left center field fence about 370 feet from home plate, a short distance from Wahconah Park's manually operated scoreboard. It's not an exact replica. Starks' sign was located in right field at Ebbets Field, and was underneath the scoreboard, not close to it.
But like the original sign, Wahconah's Park's version has been just about as difficult for batters to hit as Stark's was.
Through last Wednesday's game with Torrington, the sign had yet to be struck by a batter from either the home or visiting team during the Suns' 24 home games or in the Futures League All-Star game on July 25. (The Suns also played at Wahconah Park on Friday and Saturday night after this column was written).
"It's in one of the cavernous parts of the ballpark," said Suns' General Manager Kevin McGuire on Friday. "We've come very close. We had a ball roll up underneath it."
McGuire isn't sure if Suns batters have been trying to hit the sign, but he knows they are aware of it.
"When I told them early in the season that they could actually win a suit it was like, ‘really?' " McGuire said. "I don't know if they're aiming for it but they all want to be the one to win a free suit."
Brooklyn's sign was a boon for Starks' business. His shop on Pitkin Avenue became known around the country. He also benefited personally from the notriety. Known as "Mr. Brooklyn," Stark entered politics in the 1940s, and was elected president of the New York City Council in 1953, five years before the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. He later served three terms as Brooklyn's borough president before his death in 1972. A skating rink and convention hall in Brooklyn still bear Stark's name.
Unlike Stark, Valenti isn't involved in politics, although he is extremely well known, especially in Pittsfield where his men's clothing store has survived all kinds of commercial ups and downs on North Street for 31 years.
Erecting the sign in Wahconah Park was orginally the bank's idea, and Valenti didn't get involved because he needed the publicity.
"I like a little bit of shtick," he said. "I think in business if you can make it as much fun as possible and get people talking about something you're doing, that's good stuff.
"It's fun, creative and interesting," he said. "Sometimes you have to do something that's a little different from the standard form of advertising.
"Hit sign. Win suit. It's cute."
Bank President and CEO Jay Anderson is on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank is one of the Suns' biggest sponsors, and in a statement Anderson said the sign signifies local support for the city's summer collegiate baseball league team.
"The Suns are stocked with college kids who may need a good suit in the near future," Anderson said. "Our outfield sign recalls a time -- before national advertisers dominated the scene -- when baseball teams depended on the support of their local fans and businesses to succeed."
The Suns play their final regular season game on Thursday, and are in the running for a Futures League playoff berth, so there are still a few more chances left for someone to take a free suit back to college this fall.
When someone does hit the sign they won't have to wait long to receive their prize.
"We've got it on standby," Valenti said, referring to the suit, "and the alterations are included."