CHICAGO — Nestled beneath the Red Line in the shadows of Wrigley Field, an inconspicuous house blends into the Wrigleyville neighborhood.
Concrete steps in the backyard lead down to the basement entrance where more than 8,000 T-shirts fill the room, stacked in columns that embody organized chaos. What began with a one-off T-shirt creation worn to a Chicago Cubs game six years ago developed into a thriving company. Known for witty one-liners, Obvious Shirts has become a favorite of Cubs players, coaches and fans.
Joe Johnson, 32, has been a one-man show behind the scenes of the business he founded.
Johnson, an Indiana native and lifelong Cubs fan, works 70 to 80 hours a week to run Obvious Shirts with the help of his girlfriend, Grace Jones. Every day includes checking emails from customers, fulfilling Obvious Shirts orders, packaging shipments, running the company’s social media account and ensuring the site is running properly. Oh, and he makes sure to watch nearly every Cubs game on a mounted TV in his basement-turned-office.
“It’s nonstop, organized chaos in my brain,” Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. “What I’m most proud of is just the fact that my girlfriend and I were able to create this out of nothing and make something that we’re proud of.”
Four years ago Johnson committed to Obvious Shirts as a full-time endeavor. As with any new business came risk. But Johnson has weathered the challenges of running a company to build a successful venture. It’s not uncommon to walk around Wrigley and see someone wearing one of his shirts.
During the baseball season, Obvious Shirts sells roughly 10,000-15,000 shirts per month from online sales, wholesale and distribution in outlets such as the Cubs Team Store and Clark Street Sports locations. A Cubs team that’s playing well, especially in the summer months, can also help boost interest.
Johnson estimates he has created more than 200 shirt designs. Over time, he realized he has a knack for breaking down how to say something and keep it simple.
“To this day I’m still a company of one, and people don’t know that,” Johnson said. “People think I have this big staff, that this is a big conglomerate, and it’s just a basement next to Wrigley Field.”
Obvious Shirts is on the verge of expanding with the launch of a storefront in late July at Clark and Grace streets, a mere block from Wrigley, gaining much-needed space and an even more visible presence in the neighborhood. Johnson’s path to this point, though, has featured a strong belief in what the company could be, a couple of lucky breaks and Cubs players and fans buying into the concept.
“It’s been slowly snowballing, but it sort of happened organically, like, that’s the coolest part,” Johnson said. “I stuck to what I thought was right and made good, quality shirts and hopefully good sayings and then other people just started noticing.”
‘Obvious Shirts started as a joke’
There is a buzz building around the Cubs when Johnson, then in his mid-20s, is working in downtown Chicago at CareerBuilder.
It’s 2015, and the Cubs appear to be in the final stage of the rebuild after signing left-hander Jon Lester to a $155 million contract in the offseason. The Cubs were a regular conversation topic among Johnson and his 20-something colleagues, kicking around their analysis of the team during office chitchat.
“Obvious Shirts started as a joke,” Johnson said.
One day during the 2015 season, Johnson recalled coming into the CareerBuilder office and, like usual, the chatter centered on the Cubs. At one point, Johnson commented that “Jake Arrieta is good at baseball,” which his colleagues found funny given the understatement — Arrieta was in the process of producing one of the greatest seasons by a Cubs starting pitcher. By the end of 2015, Arrieta compiled a 1.77 ERA, 22 wins, a 0.865 WHIP, 229 innings pitched, a 215 ERA+ and 8.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 33 starts en route to winning the National League Cy Young Award.
“That’s just kind of my humor and my wit,” Johnson said.
Johnson thought that line would make a good T-shirt, and his co-workers agreed. One of them mentioned he did promotions for bands and parties during college, which involved working with a printing company in Florida. So Johnson asked if he could get one large blue T-shirt with “JAKE ARRIETA IS GOOD AT BASEBALL.” printed across the front. He requested the shirt’s fabric be as soft and light as possible for hot summer days. Johnson even had a specific font he wanted for the script, which he requested be left justified with a period at the end of the sentence.
“I had an architecture class in college, and one of the things that stuck in that class was that the helvetica font is the easiest font to read with the naked eye and to distinguish,” Johnson recalled.
One month later, Johnson received the shirt, and it was exactly what he had envisioned. He decided to wear it to Arrieta’s next start. The timing was serendipitous. Arrieta pitched one of his best games of the season, throwing a complete-game shutout and striking out 11 Milwaukee Brewers in the process.
Sept. 22, 2015, became a life-changing day for Johnson. During the third inning of Arrieta’s dominance, Johnson left his bleacher seat to grab a beer. As he made his trek to the concourse, some Cubs fans asked him where he got his Arrieta shirt.
“I told them I made it for myself, and they were like, ‘Can you make me one?’ ” Johnson said. “I told them, yeah, give me your information and I’ll print you one — not knowing a thing about shirts.”
By the end of the game, Johnson had more than two dozen people’s contact information and T-shirt sizes in the notes app of his phone. The next day at work, Johnson updated his team about what happened at the game. They were thrilled by the response he received. He asked his friend to make him 50 more of the Arrieta shirts, 30 of which he had pre-sold during the Cubs game. Johnson used Facebook to market the availability of the other 20 shirts to his friends and family.
He sold them all within 45 minutes.
“I ordered 100 more, and Jake kept dealing and then after the wild-card game in 2015, I sold all 100 of them,” Johnson said. “I got more requests. People I played high school baseball with, their cousin was messaging me who I’ve never even heard of saying, ‘Hey, I’m Jim’s cousin who played high school baseball with you, I saw your T-shirts, can I get one?’ ”
So Johnson ordered an additional 400, and those sold out within a few days. At that point, Johnson realized this T-shirt idea could be something. He created an Etsy shop and directed people to the website. The Arrieta shirt was one of three shirts he sold until early in the 2017 season.
Then came Johnson’s second big break. He created “KYLE SCHWARBER CRUSHES BASEBALLS.” on a red shirt, selling a few of them during the initial months of the 2017 season. A well-timed Schwarber home run became a game-changer. Someone from New York purchased one and wore it to the Cubs-New York Mets game at Citi Field on June 14, 2017. Schwarber hit a mammoth two-run go-ahead homer on “Sunday Night Baseball.” When the production came back from commercial break, an ESPN TV camera was locked onto a man donning Johnson’s “KYLE SCHWARBER CRUSHES BASEBALLS.” shirt.
“I was freaking out,” Johnson said. “The next day when I woke up, the shirts started flying, like, I sold out all my Kyle Schwarber shirts instantly, so I made it available for preorder and just let it run and had 400 orders.
“So that night, I really thought out this business plan.”
He settled on the name “Obvious Shirts” for his company, feeling it embodied his personality and humor. Once the business started consuming as much time as his 9-to-5 job at CareerBuilder, Johnson took a leap of faith and quit his full-time job in July 2017. He gave himself 90 days to make it work. It was a gamble leaving a well-paying job, benefits and security. Johnson acknowledged some miserable moments that year as he navigated getting his business off the ground.
One particularly stressful moment arose after his Schwarber shirt garnered national attention. MLB informed him he did not have the rights to produce it. It was then that Johnson found out he needed to obtain an MLB and MLBPA license. That process can require a two- to three-year track record before receiving approval. They listened to his pitch, however, and granted him rights, allowing Johnson to do more creatively and incorporate more player shirts.
Johnson didn’t have a Plan B lined up if Obvious Shirts didn’t pan out.
“It was a huge wakeup call and learning lesson,” Johnson said. “I very much underestimated that running a business the right way, especially in Cook County, Illinois, was expensive. 2017 was a really hard year because I didn’t think everything through, but I knew that was the time to do it.
“I’m a very competitive person, so failure was simply not an option.”
Four years later, Johnson’s company is thriving.
‘I’m a big, big fan’
Johnson never has met the inspiration behind the T-shirt that spawned his company.
Although that revelation might sound surprising given his partnerships with other Cubs, Johnson likes it that way. But his connection with Arrieta actually dates back about 14 years ago. Johnson played in a high school travel league game at Texas Christian University where his team was assigned TCU’s clubhouse. He came across a piece of Scotch tape on a bench that said “J. Arrieta 34.” It stuck with Johnson, who went on to play collegiate baseball at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., where he majored in rhetoric with a minor in economics and concentration in business and entrepreneurship.
Flash forward to July 2, 2013, when the Cubs acquired Arrieta as part of a trade with the Baltimore Orioles.
“It was like a weird twist of fate. I was, like, holy crap, I know that guy, so it made me want to pay attention to him right away. I thought his stuff was awesome, and he became my favorite player on the Cubs — and then he started pitching out of his mind.”
A framed dual Arrieta TCU/Cubs jersey that Johnson had tailored together is one of the baseball mementos hanging on Johnson’s basement wall. The second dual jersey was given to Arrieta and resides in his basement in Texas.
“I’m a big, big fan of things that happen organically like that, and for me to humbly be a part of something like this, through Joe from a fan perspective, is really neat to see,” Arrieta told the Tribune. “He started off really small and he’s grown to where he is now, and it should show young people that they can be capable of anything if they have a passion for it and they want to work hard.
“To even be a part of something like that, to spark an idea for a company ... it’s good for the city and it’s fun for our guys.”
While Arrieta was in Philadelphia the last three years, he was still aware of Obvious Shirts and Johnson’s growing business. Some of Arrieta’s good friends bought an “I MISS JAKE.” Obvious Shirt, and he would hear from other close associates about the brand. The veteran right-hander gets a kick out of seeing Arrieta-themed Obvious Shirts being sold around Wrigley and looks forward to what Johnson does next.
“It’s just exciting to see somebody with an idea, somebody with a passion creating something that not only an entire city can stand behind and an organization but hopefully fan bases around the country can start to experience and start to take part in what Joe’s doing,” Arrieta said.
It’s nearly impossible to watch the Cubs do on-field pregame work or take batting practice without noticing at least one player or coach — and often many — wearing one of Johnson’s creations.
In 2018, Willson Contreras became the first Cubs player to reach out to Johnson after seeing a fan wear a “WILLSON CONTRERAS WILL THROW YOU OUT.” shirt. It led to a Contreras collection that raised more than $10,000 to the Freedom for Venezuela campaign. Johnson has since partnered with Kerry Wood, Fergie Jenkins, Ian Happ, Javier Báez and Andrew Chafin.
Johnson’s first business meeting with Chafin took place on the reliever’s boat one night in mid-May after a Cubs game, a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m.
“They’re all cool in their own different way,” Chafin said while wearing a “FAILED STARTER” Obvious Shirt. “I like my farm logo Obvious Shirts. I designed that logo myself and Joe helped refine it. I mean, I don’t know if people are super interested in it or not. But at least it gives them the option or a chance to be a part of your off-the-field stuff.”
Johnson worked with Happ in the spring to produce basic job-title shirts for every player, coach and support staff member, including people behind the scenes ranging from nutritionists to massage therapists. Happ wanted to help build camaraderie and recognize all the people in the organization who play a role in the Cubs’ success. The shirts were well-received and have been worn frequently since being distributed one day during camp.
Happ initially got in touch with Johnson in March 2020, when the pandemic shut down spring training. After a few conversations, Happ was struck by Johnson’s willingness to collaborate and work on ideas. Happ felt it was a no-brainer to move forward and ultimately teamed with Johnson to make shirts for his podcast and coffee-investment, Connect Roasters.
Happ appreciates how Johnson wants to connect fans with players and vice versa while also giving players an avenue to show their personalities to fans.
“He’s a really hardworking individual,” Happ told the Tribune. “Getting the fan base on board is one thing, but players are pretty stuck in their ways and get a lot of people sending stuff and coming after guys for endorsements or free publicity. And the fact that you have Major League Baseball players who genuinely want to work with Joe and wear the shirts speaks to his character and speaks to the character of the brand.
“That’s why it’s been so well-embraced by the fan base and the players alike.”
‘I can’t believe it’
How can Obvious Shirts continue to grow?
It’s a thought Johnson has weighed the last few years as his business has solidified. He has created Obvious Shirts beyond the Cubs realm, from the White Sox (BASEBALL NEEDS MORE TIM ANDERSONS.) and Blackhawks (TWO GOALS IN SEVENTEEN SECONDS.) to other cities’ teams (IF JOEY VOTTO DIDN’T SWING IT WASN’T A STRIKE.) and college sports (BREATHE IF YOU HATE MICHIGAN.)
“As we try to grow the game and as players going to leave the game better than we found it, I think that ability to connect players to fan bases is something that would be great for the game in other markets too,” Happ said. “And Joe has the ability to expand and be able to really build that throughout the league.”
Johnson finds the most rewarding part of his business is the ability to help others. He wants to use the brand for something more than clever shirts. Johnson estimates he has donated at least $125,000 since he started creating specific shirts to raise money for charities in 2019. Those causes include the V Foundation, Silvy Strong, Team Mongo and ALS.
“T-shirts are just the vehicle which allows me to live out my passion, and that’s sports and that is helping people and making even a small impact, if my shirts bring a smile or a laugh,” Johnson said.
Cubs TV announcer Jon “Boog” Sciambi partnered with Johnson to raise awareness for ALS in early June. Johnson created four shirts with one-third of each one sold going to Sciambi’s ALS affiliation Project Main St. A “CUBS 4 ALS” version has been a popular choice for Cubs players and staff to wear this month.
“For him to participate in producing shirts that people could wear that are specifically tied to baseball, that’s the starting point to get the mass population involved,” Sciambi said. “He literally helped contribute to make something happen. It’s one of the baby steps toward getting a cure for ALS.”
As excited as Johnson is about Obvious Shirts’ future, it’s still a job and business that inherently comes with stressors. Learning from mistakes and figuring out what works best are part of the journey when running a company that has outgrown the basement of Johnson’s home: “With more customers and more money and more success come more problems.”
Johnson has reached the point of needing more help to ensure the business runs smoothly. He is in the process of hiring four to five people as the company prepares to open the store location next month. Johnson envisions his business space becoming revolutionary for his company. The ability to be timely with his creations, sparked by something that happens or is said during a Cubs game, is a key component to Obvious Shirts’ success.
Making a shirt and being able to ship it within 24 hours will be a game-changer for the business, Johnson said.
“I consider myself so lucky because so many businesses don’t make it, and if I was starting anything different, it would probably fail too,” Johnson said. “The sequence of events is kind of spooky when I think back on how well everything happened.”
The plan is to shift to a print-on-demand model rather than keeping a couple hundred-thousand-dollars worth of stock in inventory, which is how he operates in the basement of his home. His most popular shirts he will always be sure to keep on hand, like his bestseller, “THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED WAS ON A WEDNESDAY IN CLEVELAND.” that averages 15 to 30 sales per day. Printing shirts as they sell also will help Johnson avoid unintended errors of printing too many and getting stuck when players get traded.
As Johnson gets through this next phase of his business, he continues to think big picture. He wants to take Obvious Shirts to a national scale and develop markets in other cities. He would like to do more content creation, specifically something that’s content driven that people can relate to. Building something from nothing has been a grind, but Johnson isn’t done yet.
“I made it my mission to build this company and not have to do any paid ads or paid digital marketing because the shirts will sell themselves and they’re my word of mouth — they’re my moving billboards,” Johnson said. “And it worked. I can’t believe it.”