Once again this year for the Fourth of July the MLB is putting out special editions of hats and uniforms adorned with the American Flag, or the Maple Leaf if you’re the Blue Jays for Canada Day. Ball caps are a piece of American tradition at this point. After more than 150 years(!) of changing with the game today’s ball cap has a shape to stay on your head when you’re running after a pop fly, a longer brim on the front to keep the sun out of your eyes while you’re trying to track that ball, and, it’s most modern innovation, is made of fabrics to wick away sweat and moisture. But how did we get from the original ball cap with the pointed brim to where we are now?
The first baseball cap that we would actually call a baseball cap was worn by the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860. Before the Excelsiors team would either wear wide brimmed straw hats, like one of our Scala Laichow Boaters, or skip the hats all together. If you think of baseball as a summer time sport like we do, just imagine those first caps made of wool and how awful that would be in July or August. For the first 40 years most innovations to the ball cap were solely on a player by player basis. One of the more amusing ones to think about is the customized cap of Jesse Burkett. In 1895, the outfielder, modified the brim of his cap to be made with a see-through green plastic to still block out the sun while still giving him the full range of vision. Sadly, Burkett’s poker dealer visor never caught on in the league. As machinery got more advanced and affordable to work with league wide innovations started to appear. The first league wide innovation was the addition of team logo’s to caps by the Detroit Tigers in 1901. Soon Spalding, the baseball manufacturer, introduced a stitched together visor which then led to having a two, count ’em two, colored bill. The industrial revolution may have made modern life possible, but clearly the advances it brought the baseball cap were more important.
Our first thought of an old time-y baseball hall is probably the pill box hat that’s been in countless baseball movies and more famously Conan O’Brien Plays Old Fashioned baseball. It originally hit the league in 1905 and was met with a fairly universal ‘Meh’. Until the Philadelphia Athletics decided it was their good luck charm as they went on an unprecedented winning streak. Between 1909 and 1914 the Athletics won four pennants and three World Series. The style is considered so synonymous with winning that when the National League celebrated their centennial they wore the hats as a call back and continued to do so until 1979.
It wasn’t until 1954 when New Era began to produce a new design called the 59Fifty, where the modern day ball cap would appear. The 59Fifty was distinguished by high front crowns and and extra stiff bills, compared to the softer, more form fitting hats from before. Over the next 50 years, the major changes would come through changes in materials and the assembly process. In the 70s, teams began to use nylon, for its ability to wick away sweat, compared to traditional wool. More changes came in the switch from cloth to leather sweatbands before being switched out for newer high tech fabrics. The biggest change was the variety of hats available. In the 80s and 90s ball caps started to become more than just team accessories. The Montreal Expos were before my baseball paying attention time and I could still talk about seeing those three color hats as a kid. Around that same time Spike Lee was the first to get custom hats made from New Era, a red New York Yankees hat. Soon after team hats in variant colors would begin appearing in stores bearing the New Era logo on the side. Now you can go to any mall and see all sorts of team hats in variations and colors. With this increase in variety ball caps aren’t just for days at the park or out in the sun. They’re a year round fashion item, and we mean year round, just check out this Woolrich Wool Winter Ball Cap.