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.”