Celebrate the rich history of ball caps

Celebrate the rich history of ball caps

Like most items of clothing, it came about more through necessity than fashion.

It was made to cover one's head during a summertime sport. It was made of a material to draw moisture away from you. It evolved in different styles and sizes to better fit different-sized people, and it can come with an adjustable strap. It is dome-shaped, to better stay on through strenuous activity. It has a brim in front to keep the sun and moisture out of your face, but not along the sides, to prevent it from flying off your head when you run out a ground ball or chase one down the foul line.

And if you're reading this, chances are you own at least one.

No other article of clothing is more associated with the sport that created it than the beloved baseball cap. Whether it's your favorite player wearing it on the field or you wearing it as you watch him, or whether it's an astronaut wearing it as she orbits the Earth on the Space Shuttle or Tiger Woods wearing it on the 18th hole at the PGA Championship, it's still a baseball hat. They are standard issue in the United States Navy, used in law enforcement across the world, and a version made of mesh and foam is standard issue for any trucker worth his or her salt.

Now is maybe the best time of the entire year to celebrate this all-important fashion item, too. The Cap Off Your Summer Sale is now under way at the MLB.com Shop, which means a great opportunity to stock up on headgear and maybe even do some affordable early holiday shopping. Buy one cap at full price and take five percent off each item in your cart, buy two and get 10 percent off each item in your cart, and so on, through four caps. Just enter code CAP4 at checkout before this offer expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Sept. 3, and you also can be part of the celebration.

Which cap do you want? There are more styles and designs than ever. It may be made from many different types of material, and the logo on the front of it may belong to a corporation, a team from any sport played around the world, or whatever a person with embroidery skills may imagine. But whatever design is above the visor, the cap itself started on the baseball field.

In 1860, the Brooklyn Excelsiors became the first team to wear what would eventually become the baseball cap. Before that, teams often wore full-brimmed straw hats or no cap at all, as there was no uniformity when it came to head gear.

"The fully brimmed straw hat evolved into what Cap Anson wore into what you and I wear today," said fellow fan Coral Marshall, who chronicles her thoughts on the game at coralrae.mlblogs.com, "and therein, it is a representation of an important part of American history. The cap changed with the game."

From the softer wool hats with shorter brims to the stiffer, acrylic blend caps with a longer curved bill, advances in machinery have made baseball caps more durable, the designs on the front more ornate and the hat itself less expensive. Just this year, New Era, the company that makes the official on-field caps of Major League Baseball, introduced a completely redesigned cap. For the first time, the 59FIFTY is now made with an all-polyester construction to better keep the wearer's head dry, a black sweatband to hide stains and a black undervisor to reduce glare.

As baseball grew, so did our love for the baseball cap. From the era of Babe Ruth through Ted Williams, the stands of our stadiums were filled with men in jackets and ties wearing short-brimmed fedoras. As society opened up in the 1960s, the unofficial dress code relaxed and the preferred head gear at a baseball game became the same in the stands as it was on the field.

Fashion changes through the years, and caps have changed accordingly. While some teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals have stuck with tradition and have made very few changes to the basic design of color and logo on their team caps, others have changed design on a frequent basis, sometimes not so successfully. Remember the brown and yellow Padres cap Tony Gwynn wore during the first years of his Hall of Fame career? Is it possible to remember the late '70s dominance of Dave Parker and the Pirates or look at Barry Bonds' rookie baseball card without wincing at those yellow-striped pillbox hats they wore? It's no wonder Angels fans love to wear red when you remember the periwinkle uniforms they wore in the late '90s.

Today, baseball experiences a new golden age of popularity, which can be attributed as much to the marketing off the field as the play on it. Not only can you walk into the team store or browse the MLB.com Shop for the exact same hat your team wears on the field, but team caps have now become as much a statement about the fashion of the wearer as they are about the team they represent. From the classic fitted cap the players wear, to outrageous design fads that may look silly in retrospect 10 years from now and everywhere in between, there's an official Major League cap for every team for every taste. Just this past week, Major League Baseball Properties announced that the highly successful "TOUCH by Alyssa Milano" apparel line for female baseball fans will be followed soon with signature headgear.

If you have a specific taste, Major League Baseball has a cap for you. Brian Nicalek, a manager at "The Baseball Card Dugout" in Anaheim, California, owns more than thirty MLB caps ranging from official to fashionably trendy.

"A baseball hat isn't just about showing loyalty to your team anymore," Nicalek said. "It can be an accessory to your personality and fashion sense as well as a show of pride in the area you live. It's an example of how a baseball team becomes part of the community identity."

Dodgers fan Scott Topiol added, "There's a community that you instantly become a part of when you wear your team's ball cap. A silent nod, a random high-five will surely find your way ... even in the unfriendliest of territory. The ball cap is not just a means of supporting a team, it's a secret handshake."

A baseball cap can be about more than celebration and pride. It can also help the healing process. In late 2001, as the nation and world mourned the events of Sept. 11 and tried to come to grips with the tragedy, countless people around the globe wore Yankees or Mets hats to help mourn the victims and show solidarity with the people of New York. People wore the caps more as a statement of "United We Stand" than out of admiration for either team. On April 20 of this season, Angels pitcher Joe Saunders received permission from the Commissioner's office to wear his Virginia Tech cap in a game against the Mariners. As Major League Baseball's only Virginia Tech alumnus, he wore his college cap in memoriam to the 33 victims of the tragic shooting four days earlier. Other players later followed suit.

Every winter, as a chill is in the air and the revival of spring seems too far away, I head down to my local sports apparel store. I walk straight for the baseball section, immediately finding the fitted New Era 5950 caps. I try on every size 7 they have for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim until I find one that fits perfect and feels lucky, which I purchase and sock away until Opening Day. While I may pick up a throwback cap from the Cooperstown Collection or one of those sharp authentic BP caps that were introduced during this past Spring Training, my Official New Era Cap will be with me, through thick and through thin, win or lose, until the last game of the World Series.

At which time it will be retired and replaced by an identical (and hopefully lucky) cap for the next season.

The choices at the MLB.com Shop are almost endless, and new styles seem to come along all the time. The Cap Off Your Summer Sale is a great opportunity to stock up on any of those, because you can never get enough baseball caps. Whether you're wearing it on the field or in the stands, it's a fashion necessity.

Sid McHenry is a freelance writer and the author of the MLBlog Angels in the Outfield, Muses in the Nosebleed Seats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.