Last year the headwear company New Era celebrated its hundred year anniversary. If you’re a fan of sports, hip-hop, or just baseball caps in general, there’s a good chance that you own a New Era cap. At the very least, you’ll probably have seen their logo around. It’s a small flag printed around the brand’s initials. Take a closer look at any sport-related headgear you come across and that’s the emblem you’re likely to find embroidered on its side.
The branding of their hats is something of a sticking point, as it happens. While on the one hand there is a decades-long tradition in streetwear circles of keeping the golden New Era sticker on the brim of your cap as a point of pride, I’ve seen other wearers go so far as to undo the stitching of the New Era logo on their favourite team’s merch (Put This On’s Jesse Thorn comes to mind, for example).
Love it or hate it, however, that NE logo represents one brand’s long upwards trajectory towards becoming a global force in sports merchandise. It all started, however, 101 years ago with a German immigrant making flat caps.
In 1920 Ehrhardt Koch, a 37-year-old craftsman living in Buffalo, New York borrowed money from his sister, Rose, to found E. Koch Company (the venture would be renamed New Era Cap Company two years later). Focussing initially on making newsboy caps, they made 60 000 hats in their first year of operation.
Their first baseball hat didn’t arrive until more than a decade after the business was founded. It was Ehrhardt’s son Harold who came up with the idea. Having noted the popularity of the sport of baseball, he convinced his dad to pivot and begin making a whole new product to meet a growing demand. The result was a cap composed of a leather sweatband and six woollen panels stitched together.
New Era made their first professional hats in 1934 for the Cleveland Indians (the closest team to the company’s home base in Buffalo). By the 1950s, they had added 15 more teams to their roster.
While the business expanded steadily around this time, New Era nevertheless had to get creative in order to grow their revenues. During the lean years of the Second World War, they contended with fabric shortages and at one point even resorted to dying their ball caps in the family’s home washing machine. There were other challenges outside of wartime. Even with 25 major league teams at the time (there are 30 today), selling just one set of caps per squad every few years couldn’t sustain a business.
To bring in more money, they offered teams an additional batch of away hats, as well as a small reserve of backup caps. They also got into the laundering business. At the end of every season, New Era would take back the caps they had supplied a given franchise and, for the price of $1.50 per hat, would spruce them up and send them back good as new. The downside was that teams no longer needed to buy new caps quite as often. In order to grow their customer base, the company started going door to door, selling their product to all kinds of amateur teams and allowing them to pick the particular lettering, colours, and set-up they wanted.
It was around this time the New Era created the hat that continues to define the success of their business to this day. After his father’s death in 1954, Harold came up with a new style of cap called the 59FIFTY. The exact thinking behind the name 59FIFTY is lost to time, though we do know it was the original model number. What does survive, however, is the design. Harold came up with the idea of adding buckram (a stiff linen or cotton fabric) inside the front of the hat to push it forward. This meant that a team’s logo was more clearly displayed regardless of the wearer’s head shape and allowed for greater unanimity across the league. He also worked at lightening up the materials and construction of the hat, since heavy wool and leather weren’t particularly well-suited to hot summer days. The now-iconic design proved to be a hit and remained largely unchanged until the 1980s.
The ’80s were the beginning of a new era at New Era. The third generation of the family, in the form of David Koch, sought in an era-appropriate fashion to grow the business further. The brand’s scope duly extended to include college and international baseball leagues. They also began selling directly to fans via mail-order.
Even the 59FIFTY got an update. For the first time, teams could opt for a colour other than the standard green under-visor on their caps. Up to that point, green had been used in the belief that it helped to protect a player’s eyes from the sun reflecting off the turf, but after Florida State University found that grey might be the better option, New Era gave customers the option to choose. The Cincinnati Reds were the first team to try it out in 1990 and promptly went on to win the World Series that same year. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the league soon followed suit.
A far bigger design change was on the horizon, however. In 1996, Spike Lee — the legendary filmmaker and famed supporter of various New York sports teams — called up New Era with a request. Lee described the exchange in The Guardian as follows:
‘I had a red down jacket that had Yankees written on it in script and I wanted my Yankees cap to match. I called New Era, the official cap of Major League Baseball that the players wear on the field, to see if they could make me one. I wanted the official, official one. Up to that point you could only get the hats in the kit colours — it was not done in Major League Baseball to make any other colourways.’Spike Lee
For Spike, however, they considered making an exception (once Lee managed to convince them it was really him, that is — they put the phone down on him at first, thinking it was a prank). Since their contract stipulated that they could only make blue hats, New Era called up famed Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for his blessing and, having gotten the green light on one red hat, they obliged Lee’s request and thought that would be the end of it.
When Lee wore his new hat to Game 3 of the World Series between Atlanta and New York and got his photo in the newspaper, however, they received an immediate flood of requests for similar hats. Soon Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst also got in on the action and even name-checked his red hat in the song ‘Take A Look Around’, boasting about being ‘New Era committed’. Between Lee and Durst, the waterways to every kind of colourway had been opened and New Era more than doubled its business within a period of five years.
The ’90s were really the birth of New Era as we know it today: They sold hats in every shade and shape to anyone who could afford them. They became the exclusive supplier of on-field caps for Major League Baseball in 1993. They added the conspicuous flag logo in 1997. In the next decade, they would open their first international offices in Europe, Japan, and Australia. In another ten years, they would sign exclusive deals with the NBA and NFL, in addition to MLB, making them the first brand in sporting history to provide gear for all three major American sports leagues at once.
Today New Era is the number one headwear brand in the world. It’s a century-old cap manufacturer that’s far from being old hat, you might say. I tip my cap to them.
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