Marc Okkonen leaves legacy in sports world

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By Cynthia Price

“You’ll be missed, old friend.” So says one local sports legend to another – Jim Moyes writing in the online Local Sports Journal about sports researcher Marc Okkonen.

Okkonen, who died May 27 at the age of 86, left an enduring legacy for the world of baseball when he wrote and illustrated the 1991 book Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century: The Official Major League Baseball Guide. His book including the detailed drawings of what each major league team wore both at home and on the road each year is the definitive research on the subject.

That is why his death merited an obituary in The New York Times as well as on the webpage of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, at sabr.org).

He inspired several websites dedicated to baseball uniforms, including Uni-Watch, whose founder Paul Lukas literally says that Okkonen was responsible for the site’s creation. “I received my copy of Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century in 1995, four years before Uni Watch was born, as a gift from my friend Liz Clayton, who had stumbled across the book at a Borders in Michigan and, knowing of my interest in uniforms, bought a copy and mailed it to me.” he said on May 29 to honor Okkonen. “It literally changed my life.”

Okkonen’s expertise, however, was not by any means limited to baseball uniforms, and in fact he spent the bulk of his time in later years researching and writing about sports in Muskegon.

The Norton-Lakeshore Examiner was privileged to publish his meticulously-researched series, “Marsh Field Memories,” at the time of the field’s 100-year anniversary in 2016.

Okkonen also lent his talents to The Examiner audience in several opinion columns under the heading “Thinking Outside the Box: One man’s opinion about what could or should be but probably won’t be.” While many of the columns reflected an interest in sports, he also wrote about general matters, from sales tax to whether Muskegon should consider having a shipyard. (He concluded, “It’s a natural fit and much needed for the reborn Port City.”)
Though Okkonen, whose official first name was Marcus, lived elsewhere during his life, he was definitely a dedicated Muskegonite.

Born in 1933 to parents Jacob and Ida (Helander) Okkonen, who got divorced when he was young, Okkonen was a proud 1951 graduate of Muskegon High School. Big Reds sports formed the basis for some of his books, including one about the football team written with local historian Ron Pesch. Okkonen and Pesch also collaborated on some material about Buster Keaton.

After graduation, he worked at Continental Motors and then went to serve his country in 1953, during (and after) the Korean conflict. He then worked at Continental again as a draftsman, started a career as an artist, left for California, and got both married and divorced there.

When he returned, he received a Bachelor’s from University of Michigan-Dearborn, in 1970, and then started to be drawn into the world of sports research while pursuing a career as a publications consultant, freelance artist, and writer.

It was when he observed discrepancies in the historical uniforms worn by the opposing teams in The Natural, starring Robert Redford, that he began to wonder why there was no definitive guide to U.S. team uniforms, and to wonder why he should not be the person to rectify that.

Not only did his book jumpstart an interest in vintage uniforms, but also, according to Tom Shieber, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s senior curator, “Marc’s pioneering work had a ripple effect on team marketing in terms of things like turn-back-the-clock nights.” (Shieber was quoted in the New York Times article.)

For his work, Okkonen won the SABR Henry Chadwick Award. In 2003, there was renewed interest in his work when the Baseball Hall of Fame created its “Dressed to the Nines” exhibit, and its online database now features a bar that reads, “The Hall of Fame is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Marc Okkonen. Without Marc’s work and cooperation we would never have been able to open “Dressed to the Nines.” Marc's research has been invaluable to the Hall of Fame staff, baseball researchers, and fans alike.”

Okkonen is survived by his sister Mary Westhoff and brothers Oliver and Jack.

There will be a celebration of his life June 13 at noon at the American Legion Post, 700 S. Harbor Dr., Grand Haven. 

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