While the baseball cap may be part of your favorite MLB teams’ uniforms, it’s also become part of a casual “uniform” worn by millions of people around the world every day. However, it wasn’t always that way. Baseball first emerged in the mid-1800s, but the famed hat didn’t hit the scene until the 1950s—and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the look became acceptable both in the stands and off the field.
Pitching a Prototype
The Civil War began in 1861, and by then, baseball was already picking up steam across the United States. Soldiers played the game during downtime, and the sport began carving its place in American history. In 1849, the New York Knickerbockers—the sport’s premier organized club—was the first team to don a uniform. According to The New York Times, the formal look was completed with a straw hat. In 1858, the Brooklyn Excelsiors topped their uniforms with a jockey-like cap with a rounded crown and a short brim. The look then spread to other baseball teams across the country as the sport continued to grow.
Line Drives for Popularity, Profit
Flash-forward several decades, and in the 1930s, a fashion hat company in Buffalo, NY called New Era Cap Company saw a business opportunity. Its most popular hat was called The Gatsby, an eight-panel men’s cap with a short brim—but interest in fashion caps was fading, and an interest in baseball was rising. The business began to approach baseball teams around the country, and in 1934, produced the first professional baseball cap for the Cleveland Indians. It was the first company to actually create and refine a design with the players’ needs in mind, and by the 1950s, MLB teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, and Detroit Tigers, were all wearing New Era caps.
In 1954, the company redesigned their fitted cap to become the model best known today: the 59FIFTY. The hat has six panels, eyelet holes for ventilation, and about eight rows of stitching decorating the visor. A fabric-covered button tops off the look.
Although the look was popular, it stayed on the field. Spectators weren’t interested in matching their favorite athletes. Baseball historians argue that Tom Selleck may be responsible for the rise in popularity among fans, according to The New York Times. Selleck regularly wore a Detroit Tigers cap on Magnum P.I., and viewers took note. When New Era placed an ad in a 1978 edition of The Sporting News magazine, the response was clear: baseball caps had officially began their quick ascent into casual fashion fame.
Sliding from the Field into Fashion
By 1993, New Era became the exclusive cap supplier for Major League Baseball—the first in history to land such a deal—but history took another turn when film director Spike Lee requested a red Yankees cap to match his jacket. The company obliged. And when he was spotted in the stands at the 1996 World Series with his customized cap, a new era in sports fashion was born. Soon after, baseball caps took on a personality beyond the team logo: all-pink styles, black leather versions, and camouflage editions let the wearer say more than just “I’m a fan.”
New Era produced 60,000 caps in 1920, but by 2015, that number reached 50 million. Baseball caps have transcended American style and are now sold in 81 countries. According to The New York Times, the Yankees baseball cap is the best-selling Major League Baseball cap in Europe and Asia.
The six-panel hat (available in both fitted and adjustable snapback styles) has become ubiquitous since its inception, however, some companies have been producing five-panel models that are gaining popularity with the fashion-forward crowd. While these hats don’t typically include a baseball team’s logo, they have other embellishments and features that set them apart from the rest, such as the Zipper 5 Panel from the Parisian headwear manufacturer Larose.
Whether you’re a Yankees fan or into haute couture, New York is the birthplace of the baseball cap, and you have the Knickerbockers to thank for spreading the love of the style. The state—and the hat—have earned their place in history.