From button to bill, caps make a statement

DERBY, N.Y. -Why not the beret, the fedora or the Stetson?

For that matter, why not straw boaters?


In short, how on earth did the baseball cap become the world's hat, worn for work, play, fashion or just knocking around the global village?

Baseball may not be an international pastime, but its main fashion accessory - the cap -is as much at home on the streets of Beijing as on the base paths of Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, where the 70th All-Star Game is scheduled to be played Tuesday.


Solid, reliable and utilitarian, baseball caps are pieces of Americana gone global. Baseball caps unite Filipino police officers, UN weapons inspectors and Australian teenagers. Worn backward, forward or in their latest hip incarnation, angled to the side, baseball caps are part of the uniform of everyday life.

In Britain, where cricket is the main bat-and-ball game, a watershed was reached in the spring of 2001 when the country's monthly retail price survey - a 650-item national shopping basket of goods and services - included baseball caps.

So how did it happen?

There's no one answer but a lot of hunches: the omnipresence of American culture, marketing muscle, the trend to dress down, the urge not to grow up, bad hair days, adjustable headbands and Spike Lee, whose burgundy Yankees caps triggered a wave of designer hats in the 1990s.

But maybe it comes down to something wonderfully old fashioned. The baseball cap is a pretty good invention, a blend of cloth and stitching that provides shade from the sun, protection from the rain and uniform identity to a disparate group, whether in the United States or overseas.

"Wherever America goes, baseball is going to go," said Tom Shieber, director of new media for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "There is something to be said for a well-conceived simple product."

And a well-made cap is something to treasure, even scrunched up in a back pocket.

To find out why the cap is an American icon, to revel in its unique art and styling, come to this leafy suburb a few miles southwest of Buffalo and wander into a squat factory building overwhelmed by a sea of caps.


This is the home of the New Era Cap Co., for generations the purveyors of baseball caps to ballplayers and, since 1994, Major League Baseball's licensed global manufacturer, distributor and marketer of authentic caps.

It takes a lot of machinery to make caps: computers for cutting, sewing machines for stitching and button punchers. It also takes plenty of hands, a minimum of 22 sets to create one cap, which can be completed in around 20 minutes.

Hands that are taped to protect skin from the incessant pulling and tugging against cloth. Hands that are as callused as a lumberjack's.

Hands that belong to the likes of Marion Balon, 40, who has been on the line for 21 years, so long that she says she doesn't wear caps because she looks at them all day long.

Still, she is a whiz with an industrial sewing machine, attaching the bill to each cap in one sweeping, quarter-moon motion that takes five seconds. She'll go through 1,700 a day.

"In the old days, you'd want to put your name and phone number inside there," she said of caps she knew were destined for the big leagues.


Around here, they know the likes and dislikes of the big-leaguers. Dave Aichinger, New Era's team services and player relations manager, said Bernie Williams of the Yankees usually sticks with one cap a year. Roger Clemens often "has a dozen caps and carries them in a case."

Aichinger said about a dozen big leaguers enjoy baseball caps so much they ask the company to make an off-season version in camouflage for hunting. The Houston Astros' Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent had caps made to include logos for their ranches.

Then there's New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who Aichinger said "always comes up with off-the-wall requests" for vintage caps, like one with the logo of the California Golden Seals, a long-defunct National Hockey League team.

"Piazza wants real throwback hats," he said.

Heads getting bigger

A new wrinkle has cropped up among major-leaguers, Aichinger said. "We've had guys with bigger heads, a lot of oversized 8s," he said.


When pitcher Matt Roney was recently called up to the Detroit Tigers, New Era had to come up with a size 8 cap, the biggest major-league cap the firm knows of. Roney's caps were handmade.

When it comes to wearing the cap just so, that's up to the players themselves.

Aichinger said some players want their caps to ride low on their heads, so they cut out the hard coating inside the front of the hat. Others just throw the caps into a dryer with towels to push down the crown.

Aichinger is constantly on the phone with equipment managers around the major leagues, ensuring every team is well stocked.

Vince Fresso, equipment manager of the Chicago White Sox, said most players go through three or four game caps a season.

"Once they break them in, they don't want to get rid of them," he said. "They like to live with them."


Fresso travels the country with new caps locked in one trunk, while caps used daily go into a ventilated trunk.

"The biggest problem you have is after a rainy game,"Fresso said. "The wool caps will shrink. And if there's a lot of sweat, it can smell like an old dog."

But it's still big-league headwear.

Family-run business

Catering to big-league players and manufacturing big-league caps has been New Era's specialty for much of the past eight decades.

Ehrhardt Koch, a son of European refugees, founded New Era in Buffalo in 1920, and the firm has remained in family hands since, passing down four generations. A cloth cutter for a local hat-making firm, Ehrhardt Koch used a $5,000 stake from his aunt and set up shop with 14 employees.


Back in the 1920s, the firm specialized in manufacturing caps for men's clothing stores. The trend of the time was for men to purchase new suits and matching caps.

But in the 1930s, tastes changed and caps with suits were no longer popular. Ehrhardt Koch turned his attention to baseball, the national pastime, and determined baseball caps wouldn't go out of style.

At first, New Era manufactured caps for Wilson and Spalding. But in the 1940s, the firm marketed its own caps, and Ehrhardt dispatched his son Harold to sell directly to big-league and minor-league teams.

"If it's good enough for the Yankees to wear, then it's good enough for your school players to wear," Harold stressed over the years.

The comment became something of a motto for the firm, now run by Christopher Koch, the fourth-generation leader of New Era. The energetic Koch, 42, once dreamed of being an architect but began working in the family business as a teenager, eventually manning most every job from the manufacturing floor to sales to management.

The firm has four factories in New York and Alabama and employs 1,700 people.


"The headwear business was a cottage industry until the 1980s," Koch said. "Then caps became more of a fashion item - Nike, Adidas, the big shoe companies got into branding headwear. It's not a cottage industry anymore."

In the 1930s, the firm produced around 60,000 caps a year, Christopher Koch said. Now it's 50,000 a week. Some 3 million fitted caps are in stock at all times. A fitted cap has a closed back and is sized to the exact circumference to a person's head.

"Five years ago, we said we were a baseball cap company," Koch said. "Now we're a headwear company. If it's headwear, if it's something in style, we'll do it."

Koch's business view is in keeping with the baseball cap's modern status.

"It's very odd how the baseball cap has gone from a uniform team look into something that has become the fashion city look," he said.

Styles have evolved


Like a lot of baseball, the early history of baseball caps is a bit of a mystery, wrapped up in myth and the mists of time. Some say they were adopted from cricket caps. Others claim the caps were modeled after those worn by Civil War soldiers. There's even a school of thought that traces them to racing caps worn by jockeys.

The Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York adopted a team uniform in 1849, Shieber said.

"The first uniform consisted of blue woolen pantaloons, white flannel shirts and straw hats, what was known then as a chip hat," said Shieber, curator for the Hall of Fame's recently created on-line history of uniforms called "Dressed to the Nines."

"The first hat was not quite a Huck Finn kind of a deal," he said. "It was a straw hat with a straight brim, no curve to it. It did the job."

By the 1850s, Shieber said, the team abandoned the chip hat and went to a cap more recognizable, featuring a bill in the front and a crown on the head.

In the 1860s, advertisers heralded caps designed for baseball. And in 1888 the Spalding Base Ball Guide published an ad with 10 different baseball caps for sale in different colors and stripes.


Some of the early caps resembled hats that train conductors wore. Others featured a short visor with a dome tilted forward, like the Civil War caps.

There was even a jockey-shaped cap with a long bill that Shieber said would make a modern-day fan exclaim, 'Hey, that's a baseball cap.'"

Shieber said the first logos appeared on caps at the turn of the century. In 1914, roughly half the teams still didn't have logos. The last holdout was the 1945 St. Louis Browns.

In 1954, New Era came up with the style that set the modern standard. The 59Fifty - the hat's model number - or "Brooklyn Style," is the familiar long billed high-peaked cap worn today. The cap was designed to give players a uniform look, especially in team photos.

The long wool line

There is nothing romantic about the production of a baseball cap. It's high tech meets handicraft, a mix of computers, machines and handmade stitching.


A few things stick out at the New Era facility: Women dominate the work crew, and most of them don't wear baseball caps on the job. And then there is the noise. Not loud, really, but constant, machines grinding, workers pushing sewing machine pedals like drivers at the Indy 500, blasts of steam as the caps receive a final fit.

A major league cap is composed of nine major components - six pieces of wool that are shaped into the crown, two pieces of wool sewn over the visor and a button.

Making a cap is a matter of split-second assembly, like creating a car or a laptop computer. It begins with the computerized cutting of bolts of wool, pieces from which are counted by a bundling staff and prepared for the sprint through the assembly lines.

The trick is to assemble the main body of the cap, or the crown, and the front of the cap, the peak or bill, joining them together before the finishing touches. Six triangular shapes of wool form the crown. Caps take shape as the two front pieces and two rear pieces are sewn together. At this stage, logos are applied by the embroidery department, the stitching done on rows of sewing machines controlled by computer software.

In the old days, seamstresses needed all day just to create logos for 72 Yankee caps. Now hundreds of caps are embroidered in five minutes or less.

After embroidery, a nylon and cotton woven reinforcement material impregnated with heat-activated glue, called buckram, is fused to the inside front. Then six eyelets are punched and stitched into the wool.


The cap doesn't take shape, though, until the two middle panels are stitched on to the front and rear pieces, forming the crown. Pre-cut cloth strips are then applied for sizing and sweatbands are added.

Meanwhile, the bill makes its way through the factory. Sam Hine, a 21-year cap veteran, hand-stitches hundreds of bills a day, sewing together two pieces of wool to form a pocket, then stuffing inside a visor made of rubber impregnated pulp board.

"It's the hardest job on the line," Hine said.

Few would disagree.

From there, the visor is sewn in with eight semicircular stitches.

Finally, crown and bill meet at Marion Balon's sewing machine, where she rips through one hat after another.


The cap is nearly complete, ready for a hydraulic punch that attaches the button to the crown. Then, one last flourish as the caps are shaped with a blast of steam when they come off a mannequin-like head.

It's perfection in wool.

And it's rarely out of fashion.

"For all the years I've been in this business, people ask, 'When do you think the baseball cap is going to die off?' " Christopher Koch said. "It has been popular forever. It may ebb and flow, but it won't go away."

Former Sun reporter Bill Glauber is now with the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.