There’s an interesting profile about the New Era hat makers in the New York Times today. It’s a business that has, more and more, catered to an audience outside of baseball purists, including fashion taste-makers. Despite the overall trend towards flashy fashion caps, as tirelessly documented on the Strictly Fitteds blog, the recession has caused New Era to return to its core business of selling fans official MLB hats.
The article is a good enough reason to think about baseball caps for a minute or two. We might start with the players themselves, who get a brief mention in the article, describing a visit to MLB clubhouses by a New Era dude:
Each year, Dave Aichinger from New Era visits every clubhouse in the majors to make sure the players have enough caps. These days, the biggest issue for the players is the height of the crown. Younger players like a lower crown while older players prefer a higher one.
Some players pull out the white gauze that absorbs sweat on the inside of the cap. Other players want their hats to have a starched look. Some players consider it bad luck when extra decals are added to commemorate anniversaries.
“It’s all about tradition and superstition,” Aichinger said.
Each team has a credit through M.L.B. to buy caps. The Boston Red Sox, one of the more superstitious teams, rarely change a thing, while the Pittsburgh Pirates issue new caps almost every month, Aichinger said. Roger Clemens used to change his caps several times a game to stay dry, while Orel Hershiser used to paint the underside of his visor black to help him focus.
The players have enormous influence on the marketplace, whether it’s a well-worn cap made famous by John Wetteland or the caps with earflaps that became popular after the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays wore them in last year’s World Series.
There are many more strata of baseball caps in the stands, without the rigors of MLB standards.
You’ll often see those soiled, decrepit caps that seem welded onto the head of a given fan, even if it’s a cheaply made promo cap given out at a mid-season game in 1988. “Why don’t you wear that bad boy into the shower every once in a while,” a nearby fellow fan wants to whisper. There must be a story there. Maybe it was a great game, or a game attended with someone special. It’s a cap with a story, whatever that might be.
Others wear the pristine “dad cap” that looks like it’s been kept in a glass case at home. I call it a dad cap because it’s worn the way my dad wears his baseball caps: high and tight, looming over the brow like a general. (Omar Vizquel wears a dad cap.)
Caps are also a simple way for fans to declare their favor for one of a team’s logo iterations over another, via the retro cap. If you still like the Rangers’ blocky T from the Nolan Ryan era, go for it. Never much cared for the new Blue Jays modern artwork? Fire up that Kelly Gruber white panel number and live it like it’s 1990. With a baseball cap, unlike a jersey or a jacket or even a t-shirt, kicking it retro is possible without being overbearing. It’s a simple statement, the cap, in complicated times.
Then there’s the New Era era cap, with all manner of gyrations and patters and logo sizes apparently, according to the above article, ushered in by Spike Lee’s 1996 request for a red Yankees cap. Call it a complicated statement in complicated times, with a post-modern commentary on tribalism and the sanctity of symbols. Is a Yankees hat still a Yankees hat if it’s red? Or is it something else entirely? Is an American flag still an American flag if it’s upside down, or on fire? Not every fashion capper considers these ponderous questions, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that even a few color changes can change the visual landscape of fandom, like a user-driven Wikipedia of symbology.
I’ve experienced the downside of this fashion cap era myself, as I’m guessing you have too if you’ve spent any time in an away city. On several occasions I’ve seen folks around with an Astros cap on. “Hey, Astros,” I’ve said awkwardly, throwing out the double thumbs up. But the Astros-cap-wearer gives me a funny look: “Oh, sorry man, I just like the hat.” Punch to the gut. I’ve committed this minor sin myself in the past, sure, but since those incidents I’ve stuck with the cap of the team I actually support, as I don’t want to take an unwitting fan on that grueling emotional roller coaster.
I’m guessing that a fan’s cap of choice typically correlates to the manner in which that fan conducts the rest of his or her life. A frat boy sleeping on a pile of dirty socks every night is more likely to sport the stinky chapeau, whereas a lawyer from the suburbs keeps his cap on a hook at night, next to his leather suspenders. Not rocket science. The fashion caps blur the lines a little more. I’ve even had the notion to buy one, but I’ve stopped short, feeling that I couldn’t “pull it off,” that my daily wardrobe couldn’t support a super-flashy head piece.
My personal cap rotation consists of one up-to-date New Era Astros cap, chewed to smithereens by my dog and sliced around the edges for a looser fit, and one adjustable mesh-back (the fancy mesh, not the trucker hat) with the Astros logo from the 80s and still the finest cap design the Astros have ever worn. So I cover all of my bases, you could say, with the authentic modern and the sporty slightly alternative retro. The former is a little severe (the Astros cap being black with orange logo) for daily wear, so I tend to use the retro logo when casually around town.
I am curious to know what caps you keep in your stable, and under what circumstances you wear which one?
Eric: “I wear the standard blue dodger cap with relative frequency. I need a new one though.”