Big Heads, Bad Boys and Bird: How Salem Sportswear Changed the Game Forever

The true story of a New Hampshire screen printing company that turned the sports world upside down – one T-shirt at a time

Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird on three early Salem shirts. Credit: Courtesy of Marc Brown

If you were a sports fan in the late Eighties or early Nineties – or even if you weren't – there's a pretty good chance you owned a Salem Sportswear T-shirt. Featuring caricatures of the era's most iconic athletes, the shirts were a staple, so cool and coveted that even the players were wearing them, often while being doused in celebratory championship champagne.  

The shirts weren't Salem Sportswear's only creation, just the most revolutionary. 

The company's beginnings – a weekend screen printing class, a cramped back porch and a lot of skepticism from friends and family – did not foreshadow any kind of influence or legacy. When Keith Kennelly and Kyle Nagel started Salem Screen Printers in 1980, they were boyhood friends who took a risk. It worked. They hustled. They fought. They hired the right people. 

Then, a big-thinking electrician named Bill Fickett walked into their shop and sent their business to unimaginable heights. By the time Kennelly and Nagel sold Salem to Fruit of the Loom in October 1993 for $136.4 million, the publicly traded company boasted about 2,000 employees in three states, $100-plus million in annual sales and licenses from the four major sports leagues and colleges. 

"It was kind of like the Beatles: everything just happened in the right place, at the right time and will probably never happen again," says Doug Vennard, the company's longtime art director.  

Here's the incredible true story of how Salem shook up the sports world and forever changed the way athletes are marketed, as told by the people who were there from the very beginning. 

Kyle Nagel, co-founder: Not to make it sound melodramatic, but we didn't grow up with a whole lot of stuff. We did what we had to do, know what I mean?

Jim Nagel, Kyle's brother, vice president of operations: Up in New Hampshire where we lived, there was a racetrack called Rockingham Park, and we had a lemonade stand. We'd sell lemonade and sandwiches, and we hustled programs. When people were leaving the track, we'd ask, "Hey, can we have your program?" They'd give us their programs and then we'd sell them to people who just got to the track. We could make 20, 30 bucks a day. That was in the Sixties. That was a lot of money. That's what my father was making a day.

Keith Kennelly, co-founder: We were into the rock & roll thing. It was tough to get rock shirts. I thought there was a market for rock shirts, so I went back and forth with Kyle: "When you get out of the Navy, let's see if we can start printing some T-shirts." Though I had the idea, when Kyle got out of the service he was the driving force. 

Kyle Nagel: When I got out, we took some silly class from this guy, Al Hammer, for $150. It was a two-day class or something like that. That's how we learned screen printing. [We started with] $300 on my mom's back porch.

Kevin Kennelly, Keith's brother, production manager: My brother and I, our family, didn't have anything really. We lived in an apartment at the time. I remember being blown away that [Keith] was actually going to be printing T-shirts and I was going to be involved. I remember Kyle kind of teaching me how to screen print a T-shirt, and everything he taught me was wrong, because he didn't know what he was doing.

Jim Nagel: There were always globs of ink somewhere on the back porch. I remember the screens that you actually put the ink through being in the kitchen sink. I don't think they were in the house for more than a year.

Kevin Kennelly: We used to bootleg shirts in the parking lots. In those days, it probably cost $2 to make a T-shirt. At one particular event, Kyle was in a parking garage with another guy selling T-shirts, and they came upon a group of guys partying. There might have been 10 of them. The group of guys is looking at the shirt. The next thing you know, a guy grabs the shirt from Kyle. This guy has 10 guys around him, but Kyle kept pushing him. "Give me the fucking shirt!" The next thing you know, the fucking 10 of them beat the shit out of Kyle. His girlfriend took pictures of him in the hospital. You could barely recognize his face. But he wasn't going to back down from that situation.

Doug Vennard, art director: The way we described it back in the old days was Keith's job was to sit behind Kyle and pick up the debris. He was just a hurricane, and guys like that don't really look behind them. Keith's job was to sort of straighten out everything. While Kyle was off on a whirlwind growing the company, Keith kind of stayed behind and dealt with the personnel issues and making the company run. 

Marc Brown, production supervisor: They were total opposites, which was great, because neither one really wanted to do what the other one did.

Vennard: When I came on board and started showing them things about screen printing, they knew they weren't really screen printers. But they were good businessmen – I remember Keith driving me to Charrette [a local art supply store] in the van with $1,000, because I was bringing my own art supplies from home, basically. He said, "Let's go buy some stuff," and it never stopped after that. They knew art was going to drive the company.

Bill Fickett was looking to expand his T-shirt business at FHM Sports Group when he visited Salem Screen Printers in 1985. Fickett, an electrician, was already putting caricatures of athletes on T-shirts such as his Larry Bird-inspired shirt, "The Massachusetts State Bird."

Bill Fickett, senior vice president of licensing: I saw the success I was having with Larry, so why not Michael [Jordan], Magic [Johnson] or Isiah [Thomas]? That's when I went to the Players Association for the license. They me gave me a premium license, which meant I couldn't go to Dick's and Sports Authority, your national retailers. I had to tie it to a promotion. So, I went to Burger King. I'm a little shaky on the details, but they wanted to do five Celtics players, and they were going to give away a shirt every two weeks. When I got that premium – and Burger King was talking some pretty significant numbers – that's when I went to Salem.

When I went to the meeting at their place, unlike the other guys, Kyle and Keith were on the presses; they were covered in ink. They were kind of cut from the same mold that I am. So I just became real comfortable with those guys. They were aggressive, younger than me. If I recall correctly, a very short amount of time went by between that first meeting and when they purchased FHM. I would say it was 9-12 months.

Kyle Nagel: It was pretty quick because I saw the opportunity to expand and I didn't have the resources. We scraped together what we could find and we ended up buying [Fickett's partners] out. Maybe it was $200,000.

Vennard: Bill was a hurricane too. His brain went a mile a minute.

Fickett: Larry [Johnson of The Boston Globe] drew the next five guys, but when we fulfilled the first order to Burger King, they realized it was impeding on them selling hamburgers. They're not in the T-shirt business. Their employees would have to find the right size and the right shirt for each customer. I realized we had to get the retail license.

Bill Marshall, group vice president and general manager, NBA's Consumer Products Department: I actually made a trip back home from New York to Boston, and I was coming in to Logan Airport. I looked and I saw this Bird shirt. It was just Bird himself – not in a uniform, but as a caricature – in an airport shop. I thought, "What the heck is this?"

Kyle Nagel: The "Massachusetts State Bird" shirt was really popular. I remember the NBA calling and saying, "How come you don't have our logos on your shirt?"

We said, "We don't have the rights."

They said, "Would you like them?"

Marshall: [NBA Commissioner] David Stern's main focus was to start promoting the players like crazy: Bird, Magic, Jordan, Dr. J. They were the game. When I was putting together [the NBA Official Product Catalogs] in the early days, there was virtually no player stuff other than regular replica and game jerseys. So really, Salem was the first one.

Kyle Nagel: At the time, everybody was doing the same stupid stuff, right? Just taking a logo, slapping it on a shirt.

Keith Kennelly: Something about having the image of someone you really love on a shirt just kind of clicked.

Marshall: That was really the first launch into player-identified imaging, if you will. It was a caricature, but at least it was players and images and stuff to help round out our apparel. 

Jon Sherwood, art director after Vennard: Back in those days, we had Michael Jordan. We had Larry Bird. We had Magic Johnson. We had guys that we would set up a design and we'd run those designs on press for days.

Fickett: Obviously, we sold the hell out of Michael Jordan. We knew that. We would do 10 Michael Jordans. And the league kept telling us, "You know, we've got 300 players; we don't just represent Michael." So, at one point, the league came back to us and they said, "You have to do at least three players per team."

Keith Kennelly: How many Kiki Vandeweghe shirts are we going to sell?

Steve White, Kyle's brother-in-law, national sales manager: [The NBA] set the table. They took the initial risks. Baseball came afterwards. The face recognition and the way they were drawn up, and some of the elements around it, made basketball an absolute natural.

Mike Loparo, director of apparel licensing, NFL: Obviously, we saw what they were doing in other leagues. It was a no-brainer to get them a license.

Marshall: Actually, when we look back at the early shirts now, we go, "Wow, they weren't as good as I remember them being." They looked pretty rough.

Fickett: The first ones were horrible.

Larry Johnson, original lead Salem artist: If what you wrote or what you drew 15 years ago looks better than what you're doing now, then it's time to retire. I look back at it and I say, "Oh my gosh, oh, that's terrible."

Vennard: His technique just really wasn't working for our screen printing. He wanted to use pencil, and it didn't translate well to the cameras and things. We tried to work with him. He was kind of set in his ways.

Johnson: We came to a royalty agreement on whatever shirts were sold. For a while, it was working out quite nicely. Then one day I got a phone call from Kyle, and he felt the royalty was too much for the number of shirts that they were moving. So, I remember saying to him, "That's fine. Why don't we wait until the end of the season and then we'll sit down and renegotiate and figure out what works best for you?" Well, what started happening was he procured other artists.

I look back at it and I laugh now. Hopefully, maybe he does also. We're getting into this heated conversation, and I'm in the [Globe] sports department at my desk. I think I had to control myself more than he did. It got to be a pretty animated conversation, because I couldn't understand it. To be honest with you, it was a brilliant move, because he managed to find some other artists who were excellent.

Vennard: We started doing them in-house – I did a bunch of them myself – and people like Al Mudgett and a couple of other local guys to help out, because it was really taking off. As it was growing and growing, I was searching for a higher level than us local guys and that's when I found Bruce Stark.

Allen Mudgett, graphic designer: Bruce brought a whole new style to the ballgame. Instead of working with pen and ink – and having the lines and the cross-hatching – he brought brush and ink with India ink washes and made it look like a beautiful watercolor painting.

Vennard: He had just retired and moved down to Ft. Myers, Florida. I told his agent what we were doing, and he said, "Well, let me call him." The reason he had moved down to Ft. Myers was because he's a huge baseball fan and wanted to be near Spring Training. The stars just aligned. So he contacted Bruce and Bruce said, "Well, I'll come out of retirement for that." We hired him to do as many illustrations as we could.

Sondra Murphy, manager of apparel design and product development, Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co.: Caricature shirts brought lightheartedness and a sense of humor to sports and licensed products at the time. You were able to accentuate a player's features. If a player had a giant smile, crazy long legs, if he wore his uniform a certain way, if he had a special move or stance, you were able to capture these characteristics in a playful manner. This resonated with the consumer. These hand-drawn illustrations made the athletes more human, more relatable and more loved by their fans.

Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks: I can't remember anything close to that in those days. The shirts were the first of a kind. They were nice. They were fun. They were different.

Kyle Nagel: In the beginning, nobody saw the value of the locker room. Now, it's untouchable. Nike and Adidas have it all wrapped up. Back in the day, I used to give every player 144 shirts and the team another 1,000. That was the trade-off to be in the locker room.

Marshall: I can't remember how we decided to do all 12 players on a shirt. It could have been an idea from the Lakers themselves. We knew we could do it, and somehow the players wanted it. But once that shirt went on those players, they absolutely loved it.

Lon Rosen, director of promotions, Los Angeles Lakers: The NBA was involved. They called and said this is what we'd like to do, and it was easy for us back then to do stuff like that. It was a smaller type of organization then. There were 12 players, maybe there was one injured guy, there were two coaches, there was a trainer. It was a very small group of people. We just made sure that, when we got to Boston, everyone had the shirts on.

Marshall: What we ultimately did, years down the road, was change that shirt to a parade shirt. Once everybody got to know the caricature "World Champ" shirt, two days later there'd be a parade. We would actually design a different shirt. It might have a huge NBA ring on it that says, "NBA Champs." We would have the players wear that during the parade. Detroit did it. Then it went into Chicago, where it really exploded.

Matt Mirchin, director and group manager of consumer products, NBA Properties: When a team wins an NBA championship, the hot market is 24, 48 hours; people go crazy. Those guys did such a great job of getting the product into the marketplace immediately to maximize the opportunity.

They had caricature rights for all the players in the league, so they didn't have to have individual deals with individual players. The license that they had from the NBA gave them rights to all players as long as they did six or more players in a specific style. So they would create shirts constantly, like they did a Detroit Pistons Bad Boys shirt when the Bad Boys were hot. They created hot markets. If something happened on Monday, by Tuesday they would have artwork for us to approve to get into the market. By that Friday they'd have something in the marketplace.

Kyle Nagel: We'd have artists do shirts for both outcomes. The NBA Finals, for example, we'd be set up in both cities. I'll use Chicago. When they won the first championship against the Lakers, we rented out a Volvo dealership that went out of business for two months. We probably had 25 people out there for a month and a half. We'd be printing locally in Chicago, printing in Alabama at our factory, printing at New Hampshire at our factory – we even used a really strong contract printer in L.A. As soon as that thing was over, the screens were all set up. If it was 3-0 in the championship, we could even get a little jump on it and print ahead. We pre-made some shirts because we'd need them for the locker room. I remember one year, we had three tractor-trailers in Alabama. I think they each held 6,000 dozen shirts from floor to ceiling. Within two hours, every shirt was gone [from the factory]. As soon as the game was over, you had to be standing by with all our printers and just start cranking it. The time and money we spent to get stuff out was crazy back in the day. But you had to do it. You only had a short window, from an events standpoint, to fill that void. You had all those big stores – Foot Locker, Sports Authority – they'd be queued up the next day just to pick up their product. There was an absolute frenzy for it. With the Bulls [first championship], I think we did $10 million in a week in sales, which was crazy at the time.

Kevin Kennelly: Kyle was very, very resourceful. He was the king of finding loopholes or ways to do things to save money.

Fickett: Back when we first started with the NBA, they had the rights to the McDonald's Open [an exhibition featuring NBA and international teams]. It was in Milwaukee. Back in those days, Kyle would work with the guys checking bags out front of the airport. He would give them twenty bucks and they would throw 20 or 30 boxes of shirts on the plane for him. It was a lot cheaper than sending them UPS.

So four or five of our guys fly out to Milwaukee, they meet that plane, they pick up the shirts and they rented a car. But the car wasn't big enough to fit everything in it, so they had to take the shirts out of the boxes. Halfway to Milwaukee, the boxes break open in the trunk. They're all over the highway. Who comes passing by but Commissioner Stern – he sees all my guys out there running around on Highway 89 picking up these T-shirts.

Mirchin: David is a visionary businessman as well. When you look at David Stern and you look at the Salem guys and you put them in a room together, you'd probably say, "This guy should be on this side of the room, and these guys should be on that side of the room." But David absolutely loved and respected their entrepreneurialism, their flexibility and their ability to drive revenues and be creative. He felt it was good for the brand.

Vennard: They worked people hard, but people always wanted to work for them. They treated everyone so great. Nobody even thought about how hard they were working, because everyone felt great about what they were doing. A lot of that is just a reflection on Keith and Kyle.

Fickett: We would take people to Red Sox games. We would have cookouts, Christmas parties every year. Both of them, Keith and Kyle, were real generous. They knew be good to your people and they'll be good to you.

Thanks to the help of Berkshire Partners, Fruit of the Loom bought Salem in 1993, which was integrated into Pro Player Apparel. Kyle, Keith and Fickett didn't stick around for long.

Kyle Nagel: We were thinking security. If everything went to hell in a handbasket, at least we knew we could raise a family to some degree. It was 110 percent the right decision. What was needed to run that company, to take it to the next level, have it go public and get bought out by Fruit of the Loom ­– that wouldn't have happened under Keith and Kyle's watch. [Berkshire Partners] brought a level of professionalism and expertise. We were good at what we did, but we weren't in that space.

Vennard: The early Salem Screen was run by creative people. It was very art-driven. Keith and Kyle would force me to spend money on equipment because they knew the art was driving the company. By the time they had gotten that big – $100 million – it was run by salespeople. That's just a completely different environment. They just wanted more stuff, and it really didn't matter how good it was. That didn't sit well with me.

Allison Smith, senior illustrator and designer: [With Fruit of the Loom] you had to keep track of all your time for everything; you had to account for everything: salaries, raises, all that. Everything was different. It didn't have the easygoing feeling anymore, the way you would like an art department to be. It seemed stuffy. It's hard to explain. It definitely was corporate.

Sherwood: It immediately became more corporate. No longer did we have parties with alcohol, that's for sure. We weren't partying as heavy anymore.

Doug Kelly, president/CEO, Pro Player Sports Apparel: Salem, in the early days, I think on Friday afternoons they would have their parties and their beer blasts, things of that nature. You couldn't do that in a corporate structure. That was happening in all industries. In the Nineties and 2000s, there was a change in the environment. I think every company kind of went through that phase. You had to be more socially right, more politically correct.

Loparo: They were purchased by a big, publicly traded company, and when you do that, everything becomes more volume-driven and homogenized. They lost that boutiqueness that they possessed at one time.

Brown: When [Fruit of Loom] bought Salem Sportswear, they bought the creativity that they were making these kick-ass designs. One year, it could be really hip to wear an Oakland Raiders T-shirt. The next year, it might not be. It's not like white briefs, where you always have that customer coming back every year. And the market was shrinking because there were so many people out there making T-shirts, not like when Salem started. Nobody was making a cool, different shirt that you had to have. After Salem got in and was doing very well, I think the leagues started to say, "Hey, we need to make some money."

Mirchin: The leagues were looking to generate revenue. So their licensing teams had two things they were supposed to deliver. One, they were supposed to help build the brand of the league and the players. And the second thing they were supposed to generate was royalty revenue. As you got bigger and bigger, you were pressed to deliver additional revenue. And an easier way to do that would be to license more companies, get minimum guarantees and get the revenue stream coming in. At some point, you overlicensed the business. You had too many people doing similar type things.

Then you started getting into price wars. So the retailer could buy a T-shirt for $8 and sell it for $17. Then another company had a ton of inventory, and they needed cash, so they would sell the same kind of T-shirt with a different graphic on it for $6.50. Then someone else would undercut the price, so it started to really cut into the margins for the retailers and for the licensees. And it started to really hurt the business.

Fruit of the Loom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 1999. Perry Ellis bought the Pro Player name – which is still active – in July 2000. And with that, an era came to a close.

Mirchin: During their run, call it the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties, Salem was the most aggressive, creative, entrepreneurial company; and they forced everybody else to get better – and faster.

Keith Kennelly: I can't help but be proud of the fact that we started something that was very successful and helped a lot of people. A lot of people got their start there, and they went on to either start their own businesses – in some cases starting their own T-shirt companies – or getting experience there and moving on to bigger companies.

Brown: I didn't go to college, but my college was watching these guys be entrepreneurial, taking risks, working hard.

Wilkins: I still see people wearing my shirt.

Murphy: Salem Sportswear was one of the original pioneers in the world of sports licensed apparel. Looking back, I'm sure most sports fans owned one of their shirts sometime in their life. You probably didn't even realize it, but if you look back in your photos from the early Nineties, you'll find a Chicago Bulls shirt somewhere in the background on one of your cousins or on some kid in your yearbook.

Vintage sportswear collectors still fiend when they come across Salem product. I personally have a deadstock Salem tee that features caricatures of the 1992 USA Basketball team on it. I won't dare wear it because I don't want to ruin it. There is level of respect for the brand Salem Sportswear and that's why the name carries the weight it does today.