The Significance of the Baseball Hat

New York Mets blue baseball cap
Image credit: Robbie Noble on Unsplash

When you make the decision to get a baseball cap for the first time, that choice almost certainly comes from a desire to emulate an idol. 

I’m not thinking here of the assorted summertime promotional caps your mom might force on you along with your bodyweight in sunscreen, or the (typically mortifying) ones gotten as part of a sports uniform or school tour. I mean the hat you decide to buy for yourself. 

That one you get because there’s someone you want to be like. It may have been Babe Ruth or Tom Selleck (whose turn as Magnum, P.I. had seemingly every ’80s dad donning a ball cap and whiskers), Jay Z or Spike Lee (both of whom are all but synonymous with their Yankees hats), or countless other figures famed for wearing this iconic bit of headgear. 

The baseball cap long ago stopped being a purely practical garment and instead became one particularly steeped in individual significance and signification. 

Today caps can show affiliation with just about anything, including sporting teams, clothing brands, or political candidates (the MAGA hat looms particularly large in the contemporary consciousness, though US presidents have been photographed in campaign caps at least as far back as Jimmy Carter in the 1970s). 

Bill Clinton wearing campaign baseball cap holding cat
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton wearing a campaign hat (and cat)
Image credit: The U.S. National Archives / No known copyright restrictions

It can also simply demonstrate your embrace of a kind of democratic style. The cap is the great cephalic equaliser: truckers and farmers have sported them with the same ease as Princess Di and the Dalai Lama. It tucks as comfortably into the back pocket of a pair of 501s on the Born in The USA cover as it bears the embroidered letters BALENCIAGA.

The name ‘baseball cap’ might suggest its origins are based, if you will, in America’s pastime. Instead, it can be traced back centuries to a different continent altogether. 

Ebbets Field Flannels Brooklyn Eagles cap
Image is my own / All rights reserved

1571, England. Parliament passed an act requiring all males over the age of six (though not including ‘gentlemen’) to wear a woollen cap on Sundays and holidays. The law, known as the Cappers Act, which was intended to stimulate wool consumption and protect the local cap-making trade, was eventually repealed in 1597, but it birthed the cap with horizontal brim which would take subsequent centuries by storm (A remarkable remnant from this era can be seen on the V&A website)

Other progenitors include menswear stalwarts like the fedora, boater, deerstalker, and military-,  jockey-, and yachting cap. 

In the world of baseball, the first caps were worn in 1849 by the New York Knickerbockers. They were made of straw but proved so popular with players that more hardy materials had to be sought out, resulting in a merino wool model being introduced a few years later. It took more than a century, however, for the design of the baseball hat as we know it to be formalised. It was only in 1958 that baseball authorities in the US settled on a uniform style; until that time, players were free to wear whatever headgear they wished.

When the world of menswear has been all but stripped of its former plethora of head coverings (not counting a more calculated and anachronistic appearance of say a fedora or newsboy), the baseball cap is the last example of people regularly wearing hats. And while fans of the homburg may mourn this demotion of the hat in contemporary culture, it nevertheless marks the lowly ball cap as an icon worthy of being worn not just in emulation of others, but for its own sake.

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