The blast furnace summer days of the Central Valley have given way to cooler fall temperatures.  

Students often need a jacket for school this time of year – for some that means a letterman’s jacket, or varsity jacket as it is known to some.

Back in the 1950s, if you wore a letterman’s jacket you were probably a boy who excelled in football, basketball or baseball. The garments went to the teams’ top players or team captains and were a sign of status and esteem. The players, in turn, sometimes gave them to their girlfriends to wear. Often, they were cheerleaders in that less progressive era.

Equal opportunity

Nearly 70 years later in the Central Valley and beyond, all that has changed. Star athletes, both boys and girls, wear letterman’s jackets. The iconic American varsity jacket is not just for guys nicknamed “Moose” on the football team anymore.  

“I got mine my sophomore year at Olivia’s in Fresno,” Selma star girls’ wrestler Alleida Martinez said. “It cost $370. It makes me proud to be able to remember everything I have done, and it’s nice to have because not everyone can get one.”

Martinez, like fellow Selma senior Gracie Figueroa, is a three-time defending state champion wrestler. She has helped lead the Bears to two consecutive state team titles. She has award patches on her letterman’s jacket for her team success, along with a block S for athletics, a script S for academic prowess and even more patches for winning national and world titles. The girl's a walking billboard.  

Asked what she will do with the cherished piece of wool and leather when she graduates, Martinez said, “I don’t know, probably keep it. I’ll hang it up somewhere.”

Gimme an ‘H’ 

The origin of the letter can be traced to the 19th century. The 1865 Harvard University baseball team unwittingly got the ball rolling by adding an old English H to a gray flannel shirt. The Crimson football team followed suit 10 years later.

For the next 25 years at Harvard, team captains allowed players who competed in the most important games such as against Princeton and Yale to keep their H jersey as an award, while others had to return theirs. Thus the tradition of awarding letters to star athletes had begun, with many of these awards winding up on sweaters.   

By the 1930s the letterman’s jacket came into vogue and is still going strong. Selma High School athletic director Randy Esrealian played basketball for the Bears in the mid-1980s and still has his.

“It’s in good shape,” Esraelian said. “It’s hardly worn. Athletes in today’s society who play a major or minor sport for more than one or two years are usually interested in getting letterman’s jackets.”

The price you pay 

Esraelian said jackets typically cost a few 100 dollars, but the price tag can jump to the $400-$600 range when hand-sewn patches and embroidery are added. 

“The student goes in and picks out the jacket and what color sleeves they want and we provide the letters and the symbols,” Kingsburg High athletic director Thom Sembritzki said. “You can make it as expensive as you want depending upon the embroidery. They can be pricey.”

Selma softball player Katie Delgadillo purchased her jacket about five weeks ago from the Sports Authority in Fresno. It is black with white sleeves and has a large orange block S on her left side. There are four patches on the sleeves, representing softball titles won. Cost: $600.

“It was an early Christmas present from my parents,” Delgadillo said. “It’s a cool reminder of what we’ve done and I have a niece who I’ll probably give it to someday." 

Cherished memento

While some students opt not to purchase a letterman’s jacket or are blasé about them, Kingsburg baseball player Riley Walls is into it. He can often be spotted on the Kingsburg campus, rocking a Kelly green wool jacket with two large K’s on it, one for baseball and one for academics.

“I got it at the beginning of my junior year,” Walls said. “I wanted to wait until I got my academic K. It represents a lot. You have to earn above a 3.5 grade point average.”

Both of Walls’ parents snagged athletic and academic letters at Kingsburg and the Viking baseball star wants to keep the tradition going.

Asked what he would do with his jacket upon graduation, Walls said, “Keep it in my closet and someday tell my kids how much it’s meant to me so that one day they can get one.”    

 

John Murphy can be reached at 583-2413 or jmurphy@hanfordsentinel.com.

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