Twins Talk, September 23 23 Sep 16

TWINS TALK

Story and Photos by Gordy Jones

Q: What do Tommy Bahama, Baseball, and Minnesota have in Common? A: Bob Emfield

Minnesota has had some amazing residents who have changed the lives of people all over the world. Minnesotans invented the thermostat, snowmobiles, water skis, snowblowers, Rollerblades, magnetic recording tape, Scotch tape, the Post-It Note, the Milky Way candy bar, the closed-cabin airplane, frozen pizza, popup toasters, and the greyhound bus line.

 But there is one Minnesotan who has been the most influential person in the world on how we dress today — especially men. What this fellow created – well, most folks think started in the Bahamas. It is the Tommy Bahama clothing line, created and co-founded by Minnesota summer resident Bob Emfield.

The line was originally designed for successful men from 45 to 65 years old; men who own two homes, one of them being somewhere tropical. And men who don’t need to pack, because they’re not leaving the island. Now, nearly everyone wears that type of clothing, or at least clothes that were influenced by that style.

In the summer, Bob makes Orono, Minnesota, his home. In winter, you’ll find Bob on the beach in the Fort Myers area, mixed in with other Minnesota snowbirds. He is only doors away from Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer’s spring training home, and that is how I got to interview him.

For years, I would see this dapper fellow at spring training games and at gala fundraisers hosted by Minnesota athletes. He seemed to know everyone — not only the athletes, but also the big-business guys who’d be hanging around. If you see Bob at the ballpark, he will be in primo seats — and before the game, you’ll see him on the field schmoozing with the players and Twins executives. Bob has a unique, unassuming look, and doesn’t always wear Tommy Bahama clothing. He looks a little like the mayor on the Monopoly card, white mustache and all. He is usually accompanied by his adorable wife, Laurie, who looks as though she was made for him – or him for her. If you were to make statuettes for the perfect anniversary cake, you could model them after Bob and Laurie.

Every year, Justin and Krista Morneau host a benefit for childhood arthritis, both for treatment and for research. I have been a volunteer photographer for this cause since its inception, and I have written about it many times. This is where I first encountered Bob and Laurie Emfield. We have mutual friends in Joe Mauer’s family, including Joe’s in-laws, the Bisanz family. At many events, I will hang out with John Bisanz, and many times he will be with Bob Emfield. For years, I had no clue what line of work Bob was in – it never came up, and I didn’t care. He just seemed like a nice guy, and our group of friends always had plenty of laughs…so there was little talk of work. But I could tell he was a man of good taste; he was a connoisseur of cigars…and all of the finer things in life. I also found out that he is a philanthropist who supports many charities. But I didn’t know how that came about, or to what extent he was involved.

Several years ago I heard him telling Laurie that they were going to have to drop by one of their restaurants soon. I said: “Ooooh! So you are in the restaurant business.” He smiled and said, “Yes. It is where I sell my clothing line.”

I must have appeared puzzled, because John Bisanz grinned and said, “You didn’t know? Bob is Tommy Bahama!”  Now I was curious about his business and his history, and I wanted to pick his brain. I asked him for an interview, and he said that, sure, one day we could get together and have a little chat.

Well, I finally got to do that. I began by asking him where he was from, and how he got involved in baseball. He answered: “I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. When I was 10, we moved to a suburb called Parma. I was a ballplayer…a left-handed pitcher. I had family that was part of the scouting system for the Cleveland Indians. When I was 17, they invited me to a tristate training camp. We got to go to the Cleveland stadium onto the real mound. It was the highest pitching mound I had ever stood on. They divided us into two teams; Team A and Team B. I was on Team B. We were going to play a seven-inning game against each other. There were seven pitchers on each team, and the best pitchers were supposed to go first, all the way down the pecking order. I was going to pitch the last of the seventh for the B Team.”

When it was Bob’s turn to pitch, he was a bit nervous. He looked over at the section which had been filled with scouts and college recruiters. It was nearly empty. Most of them had already seen the players they had come to scout. He took the mound and struck out the first batter. The catcher warned him that the next batter, a slugger named Dave Pope, had actually played in the majors and could hit the ball far. Bob got two strikes on Pope, but was once again given a warning by his catcher. The catcher said not to throw that last pitch again. He knew that it was Pope’s favorite pitch, and thought that if he got a hold of it, he would crush it. Bob threw the same pitch anyway, and the batter hit it 385 feet, but one foot foul. Bob went on to strike out Pope, and the side, on about a dozen pitches.

A scout for the Phillies had seen him pitching and offered him a contract to the Carolina D League for about $300 a month. He thought it was a better deal than the $50 a week he was making at the drug store, so he signed the contract on the spot. Bob raced home to tell his dad, who was less enthused than he was. His dad loved baseball, but had hoped his son would get offered a college scholarship. Since Bob was only 17, the contract he signed wasn’t legal, which ended up being for the best. His dad nullified it, but soon he received scholarship offers from Kent State and Arizona. He chose Kent State because it was only 70 miles from home. Bob claims that while in college, he mostly learned about wine, women and song. He soon gave up his baseball career and began working in a business he truly grew to love: the clothing business.

Bob bounced around and worked for various clothing companies, and usually did pretty well. One day, a well-respected superior asked Bob if he was going out to lunch. He thought he was being asked to lunch, and said that he didn’t have any plans. Much to his surprise, the supervisor said “Good!” and then asked if he could wear Bob’s coat to lunch – he thought it was a great shade of plaid. Most people would have been offended by that, but Bob thought it was funny, and took it as a compliment for his good taste. It wasn’t long after that Bob and a couple of buddies, one being the local mayor, invested in a company of their own. After some success, but many misfortunes, they eventually went bankrupt. They decided to hop into their car and head west to Minnesota; with luck, that would be a much better market for them. They continued to design clothes, and one day in jest, they made up the Tommy Bahama character. They would laugh and talk about how this fictional bachelor lived. In their fabrication, Tommy had inherited a cotton plantation, but rather than live in the big house, he lived in an apartment over the boathouse. They made up this guy’s entire life: who he dated, what he ate and drank…and what he wore. And that’s how they designed the clothes — clothes that Tommy would wear.

Because of the great reputation Emfield had developed while working in the garment industry, he received a call from one of the Nordstrom boys. Nordstrom had heard of this new clothing line, and invited them to sell their merchandise in the Nordstrom stores. The clothes were soon a national hit. Other retail outlets began to follow suit, ordering the Tommy Bahama line. He and his partners were grateful, but the way their clothing was being displayed in the retail stores was not what they had envisioned, or what Tommy would approve of. Up until now, they had been thinking about using their early profits to invest in advertising. They actually had enough money to buy time on Letterman, but not until the tail end of the show. After an unsuccessful search to find advertising within their budget that would suit their needs, they decided to use the money to open their own store — a store with a bar and a restaurant that had a tropical “Tommy Bahama” theme. After signing the lease, they tried to move forward with their plans. They thought they’d grill food in the back parking lot, which they immediately found violated many codes. Bob called his successful Minnesota restaurateur pal, Richard D’Amico, whom he convinced to help them with the project. With Bob and his partners hard at work on the clothing side, and with Richard’s restaurant expertise, the store and the restaurant became successful in no time. They began expanding nationally, and then internationally. Soon people were lining up to pay Tommy Bahama licensing fees to print the Tommy Bahama logo on their own merchandise: furniture, sunglasses, lotions, soaps…you name it, but it would have to live up to their standards. They would ask themselves: “Would Tommy use this item?”

About 10 years ago, Bob decided to take his Twins-loving family to Boston, to watch them take on the Red Sox. Bob called a longtime, well-connected friend in Beantown and asked if he could arrange for his family to meet some ballplayers before the game. His wish was granted…but much to Bob’s surprise, prior to the game, the Emfields found themselves in the Red Sox dugout, hanging out with the home team. He and his family were grateful, but kept peering over to the Twins’ dugout, watching Mauer and Morneau — the team that they followed. His Red Sox connection caught wind of this and said, “I know what you want. Let me make another call.” Soon the Twins’ director of communications, Dustin Morse, was at Bob’s side. Dustin took the Emfield family to the visitors’ dugout to meet the Twins, and both Dustin and many of the players remain his good friends today. A few years later, Joe coincidently bought a place on the beach just a few doors down from the Emfields’.  Their families bumped into each other while strolling on the beach, and from there, their friendship grew stronger.  

When we got to this portion of the story, we sat back and relaxed for a moment. We could hear the soothing sound of waves rolling onto the beach, and saw a most colorful sky as the sun was about to set. Bob lit a cigar, contently smiled at me and said, “That’s my story, morning glory!”

Tommy would approve!