The long, strange history of the baseball cap
You could be forgiven for thinking the baseball cap was always there, perched upon humanity’s head from the very first day we walked on the Earth, as eternal as the tallest trees or the deepest ocean. But, of course, that’s not true.
In fact, long before baseball caps were the ubiquitous fashion choice for ballplayers, musicians, and Marvel heroes trying to blend in with a crowd, baseball teams didn’t even wear caps. That’s right: Had the game of baseball developed differently, perhaps we’d all be wearing big straw hats with our favorite club’s logo written across the front.
“It’s the people's crown. It's completely egalitarian,” New Era’s senior VP of Brand, Mark Maidment, told MLB.com about the cap. “You can put it on and you can feel great whether you're a taxi driver, or you're gonna play to 200,000 people at Coachella.”
“The baseball cap is a really great marketing tool,” Tom Shieber, senior curator for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said. “I don't think they realized it was a marketing tool for a long, long time. People get it now, right? I mean, entire businesses are based on it. Because it's right there. It's a billboard, right above your head, where people pay attention.”
But where did the cap come from and how did it get here? How did it become both the quintessential piece of a ballplayer's uniform, as well as the go-to wardrobe accessory for stars, artists, and the common person? To answer that question, we need to go all the way back to the game's very first organized team.
Though the New York Knickerbockers were baseball’s first “official” team, forming in 1845, it would take them four more years before the team began to wear baseball hats. Presumably, at some point the team figured out they'd catch more fly balls if they didn’t lose them in the sun. But rather than resembling what you see on the field today, the Knickerbockers wore “chip” or straw hats.
In fact, the whole look was pretty jaunty:
This information is a little suspect, though. The news originally came from the original Knickerbocker Club books, which are now missing. Instead, we get this insight second hand from “The Book of American Pastimes” written by Charles A. Peverelly in 1866.
“He has a bunch of different sections on different baseball clubs,” Shieber said. “When he talked about the Knickerbocker clubs, that's the smoking gun. 'Oh, in 1849 they said that their uniforms were going to be blue, woolen pantaloons' -- which is just fun to say -- 'a white flannel shirt' and, this is important, 'chip' -- parentheses -- 'straw hats.' I don't know what really was said in the minutes, but I would be surprised if it's particularly different from that. I don't know why he'd be making things up.”
Still, the specific choice may not have been all that important except to a) keep the sun out of the players’ eyes and b) establish a team uniform -- something we still see today. After all, why do players need to wear a ballcap when in a dome?
“I think it was especially important during the early days of baseball, amateur baseball, when it was truly a club sport. It shows that you're a member of the club," Shieber said. "When I'm on the field, I can't show you my membership card, that doesn't work particularly well. But if I'm running around with this outfit on that we've agreed to, 'Oh, then that guy is on the club.'”
It wouldn’t take long for the teams and sporting goods companies to realize that there was probably something that fit better on a baseball field than a barbershop-quartet-ready chip straw hat. So, a few years later, the first lid that resembled today's ballcaps was worn: Teams like the New York Mutuals and Brooklyn Excelsiors switched to a merino cap topped with a star-like pattern made by New York sporting goods company Peck & Snyder. This cap featured “the two main characteristics of the modern-day baseball cap: a crown and a bill (or visor).” It was called the No. 1 and cost about $1.25 to $2 to purchase.
Though A.G. Spalding bought out the company in 1894, Aron and Joe Sharpe recently brought the Peck and Snyder brand back to life, diving through the archives for inspiration for the modern caps and shirts.
“I always wanted a sporting brand, but I wanted a sporting brand that had a real rich heritage, and that we could do something quite special with,” Aron, the managing director of the brand, told MLB.com in a Zoom call. “I spent a lot of time researching, and honestly, I don't remember how I came across it, but I saw that Peck and Snyder had a story. The more I got into it, the more it became a flavor for us. I didn't even realize at the time when we did it, but they made the original baseball cap."
The brand delved into the archives for their releases, looking to tie in its sporting history with modern times. They spent hours peeking through old Peck and Snyder catalogs and advertisements to create a product line that is heavily indebted to the original while making something for a modern audience.
Despite all their research, they’re still not exactly sure how or why this style of ballcap became the pre-eminent style.
"If they were in a straw caps -- this is just a guesstimation -- but if they're using a bat and if you've got a straw hat with a rim all the way around, it probably got caught or it might have been blinding for the fielder or something to that effect,” Aron said.
(Want to see what a Peck and Snyder catalog looked like in 1873? You're in luck.)
But while the Peck and Snyder No. 1 may have kicked off the baseball cap revolution, it looks more like a beret or a deflated soufflé sitting atop someone’s head compared to today's lids. Those same Brooklyn Excelsiors then brought us much closer to today’s baseball cap, with what is now known as the "Brooklyn-style cap." The brim went longer and it had a deeper, button-topped crown.
“In the 1850s, especially by the late 1850s when you have a decent number of images, you're definitely seeing people wearing what you and I would think of as a baseball cap, which is a crown with a bill that comes out just one direction instead of all the way around,” Shieber said. “This is not a particularly groundbreaking object. Really, something like that had been worn in horse racing by jockeys for many years. We call it a baseball cap because we're Americans and it's just been associated with baseball for a long time. But it's not like it was invented for baseball. The cap had been around a long time.”
While there were other styles -- including the famed pillbox, which practically screams the 1800s -- it was this “Brooklyn” style that took off. By the end of the century, one cap had clearly won out, even though there were plenty of others around.
Perhaps shockingly, while we think of the pillbox as the standard historical baseball cap -- just go to any vintage baseball game in your area and you’ll see that’s certainly the case -- it actually had a very short period on baseball players’ heads.
“It wasn’t until the late 1880s, really, where the pillbox becomes popular,” Shieber said. “I mean, we're dabbling in it before that, but its height of popularity was in the late 1880s. But it doesn't really last that long, surprisingly. From a modern standpoint, you say ‘old timey baseball’ and everyone thinks of a certain kind of mustache or a beard.”
(Oddly enough, the Philadelphia Athletics wore pillbox caps during their height of success in the early 1900s. This helped re-popularize the cap, but could also be considered a type of uniform throwback. Oddly enough, teams were wearing nostalgic baseball uniforms in the 1880s and ‘90s, already harkening back to an earlier time.)
While these early models had the look and feel of a modern ballcap, they were still lacking that all-important logo on the front. That would come in 1894 when the Boston Baseball Club -- now the Atlanta Braves -- became the first team to wear letterforms when they donned a monogram-style look on their caps. Three more teams would join in on the fun the next year.
It would take another seven years before a mascot first appeared on a Major League hat, when the Detroit Tigers proudly displayed a red tiger on a dark ballcap in 1901. The tiger -- which looks a little like a child's drawing of the animal -- would be replaced by the letter "D" in 1903, with the now-iconic Olde English-style letterform showing up a year later.
While the Tigers are often credited as the first to pull off the mascot lid, that's maybe not entirely accurate.
"I would say the 1901 Tigers are the first Major League team to place an image of its team nickname on its cap. Now, that's very specific language," Shieber said. "Actually, in October of 1894, when Baltimore faced the Giants in the Temple Cup series -- which was a form of a world championship -- Baltimore wore special caps just for that and had an orange wing on the front. That's a logo. It's a graphic identity of some sort."
As for why so few teams still don't have mascots on their caps, it comes down to two things: Tradition and work.
"I would say simplicity, because back then a lot of this stuff would have been done by hand," New Era brand historian and archivist Jim Wannemacher said. "To do an animal or a mascot, that would would call for more detail in the embroidery. Stitch count was a big thing back in the day, and it still is."
Even today, to make something like the Marlins throwback logo with the fish swirling around still takes a lot of work and involves a lot of stitching -- something that was incredibly time consuming and difficult at the time.
"I would venture a guess that a lot of the early stuff, too, wasn't embroidered, but it was felt cutouts that were glued on or sewn on to the front of the hats," Wannemacher said. "Look at some of the early stuff. They didn't even have anything on the front, it was the color of the hat, the piping, you know, those kind of things that really called out who they were."
By this point, the cap had won out across baseball. Sure, there were still changes and modifications to come: In the early 1900s, the Brooklyn cap fell out of favor for the Philadelphia cap, which featured a stitched brim that was supposed to last longer. The eight-panel cap would morph into the six-panel cap you see today. Brims would grow even longer in the 1920s and '30s, and soon, latex and rubber were even being included in the construction of the hats.
Of course, just as players today modify their own gear, ballplayers did the same in the past. Brooks Robinson was known for the very short bill on his helmet, and Shieber remembers former Red Sox uniform supplier Tim McAuliffe sharing how many Red Sox players had extremely specific wishes for their caps.
"He mentioned that most of the bills are three inches, but Ted Williams liked three-and-an-eighth, and Johnny Pesky liked two and three-quarters," Shieber said. "I don't even know if I can tell the difference between three-and-a-half and three, but you know who could? Ted Williams, I'm sure."
All this set the stage for the company that is still synonymous with big league ballcaps: New Era.
II. A New Era
Founded in 1920 by Ehrhardt Koch, a German immigrant living in Buffalo, N.Y., New Era started as your classic haberdasher, making all manner of caps. The company is still in the Koch family, with Ehrhardt's great grandson, Chris, who took over the company in 1993.
"We were making a lot of different kinds of hats," Wannemacher said. "Some old, the Paperboy kind of hats, the Gatsby hats and stuff. But you've got to remember, there were probably 10 other companies in Buffalo doing the same thing. And in New York City, there were probably 30 little haberdasheries that were making hats. And actually, every city where there was a baseball team had the same type of thing. So, there was a lot of competition."
As revenues started to fall in the 1930s, Harold Koch -- Ehrhardt's son -- knew he needed to find a new revenue source. He noticed how popular baseball and its caps were becoming, so he set his sights on that market.
"He developed a cap based on the Brooklyn-style cap, which he felt was probably closest to what we were doing, most popular from what he could see across the market and fit in nicely with our manufacturing process," Wannemacher said. "They were actually savvy enough back then to understand that if you want to sell a baseball cap, you should probably get it on a baseball player's head."
With Cleveland being the closest big league team to the store, Koch took a train down to Cleveland and tried to woo the team. It worked: When he left, he had sold New Era's first big league cap to the Indians, debuting a red-and-navy model in 1934.
"That's where we got our foot in the door with baseball in Cleveland," Wannemacher said. "Then subsequently, every year after that, we would pick up a team or two here and there. The story goes that once we got a team, we never lost it. A lot of it had to do with quality and being able to manufacture this stuff. They developed a system here, kind of Henry Ford-style on how to produce the hats en masse, which helped us out a lot."
Those with sharp eyes may notice something, though: This Cleveland cap looks awfully floppy and doesn't have the distinctive crown that players wear today. That's because the 59Fifty -- the cap worn by all Major League ballplayers -- was nearly 20 years away from being developed.
Koch had noticed that caps often looked flat upon a ballplayer's head, with the logo laying back and almost looking up to the sky. He wanted to combat that, so he constructed a crown to maintain the shape of the cap and give team logos a perfect, forehead-sized billboard to be displayed from.
"Harold didn't design this to be an iconic product. He designed it through practicality and a love of design," Maidment said. "Let's design something beautiful, and it becomes iconic. This was all about how the logos have got to be upright, we've got to be able to see them."
Thinking of a player's forehead as the advertising space for the logo inspired Koch to build the cap with buckram in the front, so that it would remain structured no matter whose head it was on.
"In the early days, it was meshed horsehair that they would actually just sew in to the hat," Wannemacher said. "Now it's a space-age polymer or whatever we use, sort of a real stiff piece that's glued into the front of the cap after the embroidery is done. That was meant to really showcase the the team's logo on the front of the hat."
While the 59Fifty would officially debut for a handful of teams in 1954, it actually was first seen on a St. Louis Browns cap in 1947.
Perhaps most surprising is just how similar today's 59Fifty caps are compared to the early models. Despite huge advances in manufacturing techniques, materials, and even fashion trends, the silhouette remains virtually unchanged nearly 80 years later.
"If you were to take a pattern from back then and compare it to a pattern today, they're almost identical," Wannemacher said. "There may be some variances because we have contoured it a little bit. Back in the '90s and '80s, they had what was called a mushroom front, which has a real high front."
Other than that small adjustment to the cap, there are two more moments that really changed the look of the caps on the field. The first came in 1993, when New Era became the official cap supplier for all of Major League Baseball. That was also when the MLB Logo -- or "The Batterman" -- was added to the back of the caps to mark them as the only official on-field cap for MLB.
"Having that [logo] was key to the authenticity," Maidment said. "Absolutely no question as I can't imagine it not being there. There's a whole collecting culture that debate on a daily basis whether it should be embroidered high like it is sometimes or flat embroidery. That's how much it means that there's very passionate debates about raised embroidery, flat embroidery. I love it."
The next came in 2007 when New Era swapped out wool for the current polyester blend they use today, turning the cap into an actual piece of performance fabric. That also saw the end of the green and gray underbill, which was replaced with black. Studies had proven black was actually the best at keeping the sun out of a ballplayer's eyes.
III. FOR THE FANS
“I put on for my city/ So when I’m dead and gone, I got one last wish: put my Yankee hat on.” - Jay-Z
While we may have explained how the actual physical cap made it to today, we still haven't talked about how these things actually got onto a fan's head. Look back at old ballpark photos, and you'll often see rows upon rows of fans in suits, with the only hats being fedoras, trilbies and pork pies. It wasn't until televised games in the 1960s that fans really began even wanting to be seen in their favorite team's gear.
While there had always been some souvenir caps for sale, they were far from the fitted, bespoke pieces you can buy now. That all changed after New Era ran an ad in the April 1980 issue of the Sporting News. The company had known that fans would sometimes call the factory and request the cap. They figured maybe a couple dozen of readers would see the ad and want one as well.
Instead, it was more like a scene out of "Miracle on 34th Street."
A couple weeks after the ad ran, David Koch -- the father of current CEO Chris Koch -- went on his usual trip to the nearby post office to pick up a tote full of mail to bring back to the office. As he went to leave, one of the workers stopped him.
"Oh, wait a minute," the postal worker shouted. "What about the rest of the stuff?"
"What are you talking about?" Mr. Koch replied, before being ushered into the back of the post office.
What did he find there?
"Seven giant bags full of mail order envelopes," Wannemacher said with a laugh.
"He loaded them up in his car, went into the factory and threw it on the floor and said, 'We've got a problem,'" Wannemacher relayed. "We didn't have the inventory because everything we did was made to order."
From there, the fan market was off. Even then, the Koch family probably couldn't dream about New Era flagship stores, specialty cap stores like Lids or the intense and lucrative memorabilia market thriving as it does today.
As caps took off and fans began gobbling them up, it was pop culture that cemented the baseball cap as both a quintessential piece of American culture and a completely acceptable article of fashion. "Magnum P.I." made Hawaiian shirts and Tigers caps chic as Tom Selleck and his signature mustache solved crimes in Hawaii.
Because of his love for Roberto Clemente, Chuck D of Public Enemy put on a Pirates cap, bringing the iconic black-and-gold "P" to the masses.
Eazy E of NWA made the black-and-white White Sox cap a piece of must-wear, goes-with-anything fashion, and it got a renewed spark when Chance the Rapper made it his iconic lid, as well.
"We can go to a seminal moment in the late '80s when NWA emerges, particularly when Eazy E emerges in the White Sox hat," Dr. Jabari Evans, an Assistant Professor of Race and Media at the University of South Carolina, said. "It's one of those things that went from being something that was associated very strongly with where you're from, and very strongly with being a fan of the sport, to transcending that and saying a statement about cool and saying a statement about aesthetics and saying a statement about athleisure and lifestyle."
No longer was the cap merely a way to talk about your favorite ballclub, or even about the city you were from. It had now become a piece of fashion -- one that was often synonymous with the people wearing them.
"Jay-Z made it where you could wear a tuxedo with a Yankee fitted, you know?" Dr. Evans said. "Things were not indicative of where you're from anymore. It's more indicative of cool and an understanding of how to put it together. The Yankee hat became the thing you could wear at any time."
Ben Affleck couldn't run from it either. Known for his deep Boston sports love, he refused to wear a Yankees cap in the film "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher.
“I said, ‘David, I love you, I would do anything for you,’” Affleck told the New York Times. “‘But I will not wear a Yankees hat. I just can’t. I can’t wear it because it’s going to become a thing, David. I will never hear the end of it. I can’t do it.’ And I couldn’t put it on my head.”
In the end, the two were able to compromise: Affleck donned a Mets cap.
Legendary hip-hop photographer Jonathan Mannion understands that feeling well. Many of his subjects don caps in his photos, and he found that putting on a cap made him feel like he belonged in the scene when he first moved to New York to work as a photographer in 1993.
"I always sort of felt like, if I had on a cap -- certainly, there were other items that I would wear -- that made me feel like I represented something bigger than myself," Mannion said over the phone, admitting that he had just placed an order for two new hats. "There was an attitude, and a presentation of your soul that was somehow aligned with the core values of hip hop and the culture and what it represented as it was growing."
He knows that the cap says something that is a little bigger than even the person wearing it is.
"I think this is the easiest way to adorn yourself with the crown of where you're from, you know, 'I'm a king from Brooklyn,' Mannion said. "I think about an image of Memphis Bleek wearing this hat that's like teetering on the top of his head. I don't even know how it stay balanced up there!"
He points to another photo he took of Lil Wayne:
"The Cincinnati Reds and Lil Wayne wearing that for 'Tha Carter III,' it's like, OK, that represents something else to him," Mannion said. "It's a colorway that's important to the family."
The hat could now say so much more than merely what was on your head.
"When Ice-T puts out '6 'n the Mornin',' he's wearing a Dodger hat. And he was very distinctly letting people know, 'I'm from L.A.,'" Evans said. "It was done to counter what was happening in New York, because New York had sort of originated hip-hop. They had said, 'This is what it's like to live everyday life in an urban setting.' And then [this cap] says, 'Yeah, that's how it is in New York, but we don't ride the train -- we hang outside, we have beaches ... we have a different dynamic.'"
IV. The Future
While the caps of today share an awful lot with what the Brooklyn Excelsiors were wearing in the 1800s, they remain a vital piece of the fashion conversation because the experimentation hasn't stopped. Ken Griffey Jr. inspired an entire generation with his sweet swing and penchant for wearing his caps backward.
"There was a moment, marketing-wise, where I think African-Americans really latched on to [Griffey] as a hero," Evans said. "And he ties to the culture. Now you had someone who was playing the game, but also I could watch 'Martin' and he's a guest star. I could watch 'Yo! MTV Raps' or 'MTV Jams,' and Bill Bellamy is interviewing Ken Griffey Jr. He was embedded within culture in a different type of way. ... I would be remiss if I didn't bring him up as someone who I think bridges the gap between hip hop culture and popular culture."
Caps now come in a variety of colors and styles for every team -- something you can thank Spike Lee for. In 1996, the legendary director wanted a red Yankees cap, something which didn't exist at the time. He called New Era to make his request. Because the licensing deal only allowed the company to produce on-field styles, that meant Chris Koch needed to call the Yankees and Major League Baseball to get permission. It was granted, but under one condition: Only one cap could be made for Spike.
"The problem was Spike was Spike. He had his picture taken, which shows up in the paper," Wannemacher remembers. "And now, oh boy, [people want it] but our contract says we can't make this stuff."
"The watershed moment there cannot be underestimated," Maidment said. "Prior to that, it was only team colors. It blows my mind. Imagine, one red cap, and it was like right, 'Let's go.' That's where creativity came in."
You can trace that line straight to the new City Connect uniforms, which see the Red Sox wear a sky blue cap or have the Mariners pulling inspiration from the Seattle Pilots. You can see that in the Minor Leagues, where teams wear ever stranger gear like when the Hartford Yard Goats literally turned their lid into a hamburger, complete with lettuce, tomato and ketchup.
"I think the future is giving young, new talent -- doesn't even have to be young -- any new talent the opportunity to work with a product that's authentic like this," Maidment said. "We will always experiment, we've continued to be open. We continue to be happy to be a canvas."
The future looks bright: As long as ballplayers still pull on a cap before they take the field and artists continue to wear one to say something that's larger than themselves, it looks like the cap will be around to stay.
"They say, 'You're not dressed without a smile,'" Mannion said. "I would say, 'You're not quite dressed without that cap.'"