How a swimsuit model sent an archival dugout piece into a new stratosphere of retail royalty.
On the mound and at the cash register, the Houston Astros are among baseball’s best.
They’ve won three of the last six American League pennants and took the 2017 World Series, selling a feverish fan base everything from fitted caps to Space City jerseys in the process.
And while those Texas summers can be sweltering, it’s not a Jose Altuve t-shirt or sun shading hat that has their retail division doing the money dance.
Rather, it’s a striped sweater from the ’86 season that outsells all other items.
Worn by Astros ace Nolan Ryan right around the time he had his own theme song, the wool-based rainbow cardigan arrived as a dugout exclusive decades ago.
However, it wasn’t until 2017 that it exploded as a fashion statement, oddly enough thanks to model Kate Upton. She wore the now-legendary cardigan to Game 7 of the ALCS that year to support then-fiancé and Astros pitcher Justin Verlander.
The piece has been the team’s top-selling item ever since.
Styled by the swimsuit model with blue jeans and high heels, just how hot is this Cooperstown classic?
“We sell thousands of units in one of the warmest climates in the United States,” Astros senior buyer Brandon Pemble told Boardroom.
Not only is it an anomaly, it almost never happened.
Mere months before Upton single-handedly skyrocketed sales of an archival sweater, she was moving units through far less fabric.
Over 7,400 miles away from her home base of Michigan, a 24-year-old Upton posed on the sandy shores of Fiji for her third Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover. Back home, Verlander was the backbone of the Detroit Tigers’ rotation.
Verlander was in his 13th season with the Tigers but was seeking sunnier pastures. Despite six All-Star nods to his arm and a shimmering diamond on the hand of his supermodel steady, reports suggested he was headed to a contender.
For much of 2017, Upton covered newsstands while Verlander continued his day job as trade rumors rumbled into August. He eventually landed in Houston at the 11th hour.
There was no adjustment period needed. Verlander was one of baseball’s best with the Astros, leading his new team to a Game 7 ALCS win and earning series MVP.
As the confetti fell on a cool Houston night, a bright blur flashed from the stands to center field. Not a comet, but a shooting star.
It was Upton, racing to hug Verlander in a bright, rainbow-clad cardigan. For longtime fans of the franchise, Upton’s top was as recognizable as it was rare.
Famously, it was the striped sweater worn decades ago by another Astros ace.
“It was an actual dugout piece in the ’70s and the ’80s,” Pemble said. “Nolan Ryan wore it.”
An eight-time All-Star and Lone Star legend, Ryan signed a $4.5M deal with the Astros all the way back in ’79.
For nine seasons, the prized pitcher called Houston home, often wearing the striped sweater in between innings. Franchise favorites like Joe Niekro and Yogi Berra (in his coaching days) rocked the comet cardigan on road trips and cool nights as a means to remain warm and on-brand.
But back then, fans didn’t.
For years, the striped sweater was an exclusive to Astros athletes and managers.
Decades later, Astros retail buyer Josiah Gallow saw the sweater in the authentics area of the Astros team store — a space where vintage products from multiple eras were available to the public.
“He bought it and he loved it,” Pemble said. “Simultaneously, Mitchell & Ness added a replica version to their line. They pitched it and he placed a minimum order in 2014 for the team store. We sold it, but not that many units. It was the same thing for 2015 and 2016.”
A $225 novelty piece for fans constantly at war with heat and humidity, the statement sweater proved a slow seller for the first three years of its retro existence.
“And then 2017 happens,” Pemble said. “After Game 7 of the ALCS, Kate Upton is seen wearing that sweater as an overcoat on-field.”
“We sold out.”
But it didn’t stop there.
“The next year, we sold 20 times the number of units as the previous year,” Pemble said.
“The year after that? Five times the number. It’s been our number one item in retail for the past three or four seasons now.”
As the Astros look to capture another World Series, Verlander remains a monster on the mound. Just the same, Upton’s one-off wear continues to break the bank despite Houston’s high heat.
So much so that it’s helped send the team store straight to the top.
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Despite it being autumn on the calendar, Houston hit highs in the 90s as recently as this week.
But the Astros team store stocks the Upton approved sweater no matter the weather.
“We focus on keeping it year round,” Pemble said. “We’re very lucky that we have a leadership group that’s supportive of our retail efforts.”
“As you travel to cities up north where temperatures are getting into the 30s, 40s, and 50s? People come to the Astros team store and they stock up for their road trips.”
As a franchise, the Astros are in a golden era of greatness matched by the same superiority at retail. Currently, the team ranks No. 1 in store sales, obliterating retail records in April with the launch of their Space City collection.
Pemble credits an internal leadership group that trusts its team store buyers, balanced by a feverish fan base with an appetite for the old and new.
When it comes to the sweater — one worn organically by Upton and not seeded — he’s quick to credit the supermodel’s ability to provoke perspective on retro fan gear as modern fashion.
Despite being made in men’s sizing, Upton swung the sweater as a crossover hit two times over. Not only are more women buying it than men, it’s proof that licensed apparel can be sold through a lifestyle lens.
“In the past it was two separate worlds,” Pemble said. “But the way she styled it made it very approachable and cool.”
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