By George Grimm
To many fans, a trip to Madison Square Garden isn’t complete without a stop at Cosby’s, the iconic sporting goods store. Cosby’s has long been considered the mecca, the place to buy Ranger jerseys, memorabilia and hockey equipment. But what about the man behind the brand? How did the name Gerry Cosby become synonymous with sporting goods?
Finton Gerard David Cosby was born in 1909 in Roxbury, Massachusetts and as a young man worked as an office boy and switchboard operator at the Boston Arena, the home of the Boston Tigers of the Canadian-American Hockey League. One day in 1928, Eddie Powers the manager of the Tigers, fired their netminder because his drinking had made him too unreliable and asked Gerry, who was 19 at the time, to be their practice goaltender. Keep in mind that Gerry had never played hockey, let alone goal in his life, but he went down to the Tigers’ dressing room and gamely donned the pads and oversized skates, willing to give it a shot.
On the ice, however, Gerry’s eagerness couldn’t hide his inexperience and he expected the Tigers to bring in another goalie for their next practice. But Powers asked him to come back the next day and try it again and he played a little better. His play continued to improve each day and in time Gerry had a steady job as the Tigers’ practice netminder.
The Boston Bruins also practiced in the Arena and Gerry caught the eye of Art Ross their GM and Coach and he was soon seeing double-duty as the practice netminder for both teams. Remember, this was back in the days when teams usually carried only one netminder, so having a reliable practice goaltender was a necessity. And although Gerry was not getting paid for any of these practice sessions, he was gaining valuable experience and being mentored by Bruins netminder Tiny Thompson, a future Hall of Famer.
In 1932 Gerry toured Europe with a group of American hockey players that was organized by Bruins’ president Walter Brown. A year later the United States entered a team in the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia with Gerry as their goaltender. Amazingly, after playing the position for only five years, he posted four consecutive shutouts against Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria and then beat a heavily favored Canadian team 2-1 in overtime for the championship. It marked the first time that a Canadian team had been defeated in the World Championship games.
Gerry then moved to New York to take a job as a runner on Wall Street, but he didn’t want to give up on his hockey career. So he called Rangers’ General Manager and Coach Lester Patrick and asked him if he could skate with the team and wound up becoming their practice goaltender.
Cosby then went to England to play for the Wembley Lions in the English Hockey League where he was voted the MVP of the league and also managed to attend business college in his spare time. A year later he was invited to play on the United States Olympic team but declined because he had just gotten a new job with Stewart Iglehart’s construction business.
During the late 1930’s and early 40’s Gerry was a very busy guy, seeing duty as the backup netminder for the New York Rovers, the Rangers Eastern League affiliate, as well as serving as the practice goaltender for both the Rangers and the New York Americans. Then during World War II when many players from all levels of hockey were overseas, Cosby was often called upon to tend goal for the Boston Olympics as well as the Rovers in the same week.
Gerry’s involvement in the sporting goods business began while he was with the Rovers, when GM and Coach Tom Lockhart asked him to order some sticks. He was able to find a company called Lovell Manufacturing, in Erie, Pa. that made hockey sticks, mouse traps and washing machine parts and ordered six dozen at a good price. The sticks were delivered, Lockhart and the players liked them and soon Gerry was placing orders for gloves and pads and the rest as they say is history.
Cosby started getting orders from other teams in the Eastern Hockey League as well as the Rangers and the Americans. When he ran out of space in a store he had opened adjacent to his York Avenue apartment, he moved to a larger place at 12 West 48th Street, near Rockefeller Center.
Gerry briefly entered into a partnership with three other athletic suppliers but after a stint in the army as a pilot trainer, he once again assumed total control of the business. By this time Cosby’s was a respected supplier of equipment and uniforms for all sports to the pros, colleges and high schools as well as the general public and a larger store was needed.
A chance encounter with William Jennings at Gerry’s son Michael’s football game led to him asking the Rangers President about a vacant store adjacent to the old Madison Square Garden on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. When Jennings told him it was available Gerry drove down from Massachusetts the following Monday morning to sign the lease for the store which opened in 1959.
Gerry often said that the 50th Street store was his favorite. Being so close to the Garden was good for business and good for the Rangers who were frequent visitors, especially when a new batch of sticks came in. “They didn’t have room upstairs in the Garden to keep the sticks”, Michael Cosby recalled, “so when the Northland sticks came in the players would come in and we had a big rack in the back and they would go pick out the ones they liked.” Former Ranger Dick Duff also recalled the store fondly; “The guys were always good to us in the Cosby’s store down in the old Madison Square Garden. It was a nice store, nice family and they loved hockey”.
And then in 1968 when the Rangers and Knicks moved into the New Garden on 33rd street and Seventh Avenue, Cosby’s moved along with them, first to a street level location outside Penn Station then into a space in the Garden’s Esplanade. Today they are located at 11 Penn Plaza about half a block from the Garden. There is also a store and warehouse in Sheffield, Massachusetts, where most of the merchandise is designed, manufactured and distributed.
I have a lot of fond personal memories of Cosby’s. The old Garden location reminded me of a men’s clothing store except with jerseys and team jackets instead of suits and sports jackets and skates instead of shoes. In a way, Cosby’s gave us a playground for our childhood dreams because with all of the hockey equipment lined up along the wall it was very easy to imagine yourself pulling on a jersey and skating on the Garden’s ice next door. I used to go in and look around and after a while Gerry came to recognize me and waved hello. I even applied for a job there when I was in my early teens. I was probably too young to work at the time but Gerry’s son Michael took me in the office and interviewed me. I didn’t get the job, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.
One Saturday I was in the store by the old Garden and saw Jim Neilson, trying on a pair of sneakers. I recognized “The Chief” right away and gathered up all the courage a 13-year old could muster and asked him for his autograph. He was very nice and signed my scrap of paper. I told him it was nice to meet him and he said thanks. My friend Tom, who was usually the more bold and boisterous of the two of us, was awestruck and managed to say, “me too”.
A few years later I was in the street level store by the new Garden and saw Muzz Patrick talking to another gentleman. I went over and shook Muzz’s hand and he introduced me to Johnny Wilson another former Ranger. They both signed a card for me and Muzz seemed especially happy to be recognized.
And then one afternoon I was in the store in the Garden’s Esplanade and heard a familiar voice. I turned around and it was Downtown Julie Brown from MTV fame. You never knew who you were going to meet when you went to Cosby’s.
During the late 1980’s – early 90’s when I was publishing SportStat… The Rangers Report, I asked Michael to buy a yearly advertisement that I placed over the Rangers schedule on the back page. To me, having that Cosby’s logo associated with my newsletter gave it instant credibility and it looked pretty good too. I would have ran that ad for nothing.
Gerry was an innovator. He redesigned hockey jerseys to allow equipment to be worn comfortably underneath. He also added padding to hockey gloves and designed adjustable size and suspension features for helmets. He added Velcro straps to hockey pads and worked with stick manufacturer to create laminated stick shafts and fiberglass wrapped blades.
Sadly, Gerry Cosby passed away in 1996. He was inducted posthumously into the International Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in April of 1997 for his outstanding goaltending in International play.
Gerry Cosby’s legacy is one of quality, service and integrity and it is being carried on proudly by his son Michael and his grandchildren Christy and Matthew. Now in their eighth decade, Cosby’s has provided quality equipment and service as well as memories to countless generations of fans with many more to come.
George Grimm is the former publisher of Sportstat… The Ranger Report and columnist for the Blueshirt Bulletin. He currently writes the Retro Rangers column for Insidehockey.com and his book about the Emile Francis Era Rangers “We Did Everyhing But Win” will be published in September 2017.