HATS OFF TO CAPS : Baseball's Head Coverings May Lack Style, but They're a Real American Institution

Times Staff Writer

At the end of the 1967 World Series, as the St. Louis Cardinals celebrated their Game 7 victory in front of the mound at Boston's Fenway Park, photographers caught umpire Augie Donatelli in an embarrassing pose.

He was shown making off with a pair of Cardinal caps, plucked right from the heads of shortstop Dal Maxvill and second baseman Julian Javier.

"It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing," said Donatelli, who is now an umpiring consultant for the National League. "The one fellow's cap was falling off, and I just kind of grabbed it. And then I reached in and grabbed another."

Proving, in the process, that in the search for an enduring piece of Americana, even the otherwise unimpeachable men in blue aren't above bending the rules.

The baseball cap has become an American institution. Making up in sentimental and spiritual value whatever it may lack in style, the simple, functional cap sells at a staggering rate.

According to David Koch, president of the New Era Cap Co. in Angola, N.Y., which supplies caps for 23 of the major leagues' 26 teams, almost 400 million baseball caps will be sold in the United States this year.

"Baseball is a very affectionate, old-fashioned, quintessentially American sort of activity," said menswear designer John Weitz. "The baseball cap has become a symbol of something that is a cheerful and nice thing to identify with."

America's favorite headgear really isn't much to look at. It's basically a skullcap with a visor. Imagine Humphrey Bogart in the climactic scene in "Casablanca" wearing a Yankee cap instead of a fedora.

Esquire magazine referred to it once as a head covering not particularly flattering to the person wearing it.

"It throws the face into shadow and makes the head look disproportionately small," Esquire said. "As for style, it hasn't got much going for it, either. It lacks the panache of a snap-brim fedora; it hasn't got the larger-than-life bravado of a cowboy hat or the authority of a commodore's kepi."

But Alan Flusser, author of "Clothes and the Man," said of baseball caps: "They're more fun than anything else. They're so far removed from the normal subject of quote-unquote dressing well. . . . There's nothing quite serious about them."

That unpretentiousness, of course, is part of the cap's charm. It is, in fact, probably the only head covering in the world that looks worse with no lettering or insignia on it.

"It provides a way for men to identify with their favorite group of guys," Weitz said.

Not to mention their favorite tire company, beer or silly slogan.

In the last two decades, the corporate world has turned baseball caps into modern-day sandwich boards. It's not because they're uncomfortable or don't look right that race-car drivers wear as many as two dozen different caps during a 30-minute post-race press conference.

In fact, there usually is someone in charge of whose caps are worn during the press conferences, and in what order.

"A general rule of thumb is, 'He who pays the mostest goes the firstest,' " said Bill Broderick, a Unocal publicist so adept at this game of musical caps that he has come to be known as "the commandant of the winner's circle."

Although enterprising businessmen have borrowed from baseball in recent years to pitch everything from spark plugs to malt liquor with their specially designed lids, that's in the finest tradition of baseball caps. Baseball, after all, borrowed the design of its caps from horse racing, the nation's No. 1 spectator sport when baseball was a pup.

The New York Knickerbockers, who introduced uniforms to baseball in 1851, wore straw hats. Other teams wore fezzes.

Visored caps, said to be inspired in part by the jockey caps worn at the race track and in part by the caps worn by soldiers in the Civil War, took over as the favored style in the 1860s.

Some teams wore a style similar to the one used today, and others used what were later described as "visored hatboxes," a pillbox style that came to be known as the Bicentennial style when several teams wore the flat-top caps during the 1976 season.

By 1882, the entire National League had adopted a system first used by Manager A.G. Spalding of the Chicago White Stockings in 1876, assigning a different colored cap for each position in an effort to help fans more easily identify the players.

The players disliked the system, however, and it was abandoned the next season.

The flat-top caps, favored by the Chicago White Stockings, were gone by World War I, the skullcap style favored by the Boston Red Stockings having won out.

New Era's Koch, whose company has manufactured baseball caps since 1920, said that caps haven't changed much in the last half century.

"They're a little lighter now, but they're made, basically, from wool fabrics," he said. "And back then they were made out of wool fabrics, too."

Changes in the design of the cap since World War II include a lengthening of the bill and, in the last 20 years or so, stiffening and raising the crown a bit in front, Koch said.

"We took away the shape of the head by making the cap fuller," he added. "They used to fit closer to the head. What has evolved is a hat that basically sits away from the head."

The fuller caps, he said, provide better ventilation and, by reducing the skullcap effect, produce a style that is more uniform throughout the team.

"The cap sits there and doesn't distort your head," Koch said. "My father used to say, 'If you've got a head like a monkey, you can't look like an ape.' "

In the mid-'70s, the Cincinnati Reds caused a bit of a stir when, at the suggestion of an expert in light research, they changed the color of the undersides of their visors from green to gray. They were told that colors have an effect on the pituitary gland and the central nervous system, and that gray would have a more calming effect. Several other teams switched to gray, too, but the Reds went back to green a few years ago.

"The players couldn't tell the difference," said Bernie Stowe, the Reds' equipment manager.

The Detroit Tigers, whose navy blue caps in 1901 bore the red silhouette of a tiger, were the first team in this century to include a mascot on their head coverings, said Marc Okkonen, a graphic artist from Guiderland, N.Y., who has done extensive research on the history and design of baseball uniforms.

The Tigers adopted the old-English D they still use today in about 1905, Okkonen said.

It has become a classic.

Although some teams seemingly change the design of their caps at whim--the Chicago White Sox have worn five different caps in the last 15 years--others have worn the same basic cap since World War I.

Yankee caps, which haven't changed much since the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, are as identifiable with New York as they are with the Yankees.

The same is true of Dodger caps and Los Angeles, but the Dodgers weren't always such traditionalists. In 1916, when caps were made of the same material as the rest of the uniform, the Brooklyn Dodgers wore checked versions, with pinstripes running both vertically and horizontally, and in 1937 their caps were Kelly green.

The green caps, and the white and green home uniforms and tan and green road uniforms they topped, might have been prompted by a 1936 article in the Rochester (N.Y.) Chronicle in which it was argued that "more colorful uniforms would enhance the attractiveness of the game and would help to draw more customers, particularly among the feminine element."

The author of the article further stated that casual fans are interested "only in what kind of a show they can see. A spectacular play doesn't seem so spectacular to them. A finely dressed man, moving around gracefully, does. This type of customer usually is of the female sex."

Whatever the reason for the switch, the Dodgers were back in blue the next season and, although they haven't played at Ebbets Field for 30 years, caps from their Brooklyn days remain the most popular among collectors.

"If you had an original Brooklyn Dodger hat, you could name your price," said Barry Halper, a minority owner of the Yankees whose collection of baseball memorabilia is said to be the equal of Cooperstown's and includes about 150 caps, among them the cap--complete with plastic inserts on the sides--worn by Jackie Robinson in his rookie season of 1947.

Even replicas of Brooklyn caps are popular among collectors, as are those of other defunct teams, including the St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators and Seattle Pilots, whose caps are believed to be the only ones in major league history that featured a design--military-type scrambled eggs--on the bill.

But the most popular cap, year after year, is the Yankees', Koch said. The least popular depends on the standings. Caps of last-place teams aren't in great demand.

Winning the World Series can have a dramatic influence on cap sales, Koch said. When the Tigers won the World Series in 1984, and actor Tom Selleck wore a Tiger cap on "Magnum P.I.," sales of Tiger caps skyrocketed.

"We couldn't make them fast enough," Koch said.

And the Pittsburgh Pirates, who retained their Bicentennial style caps through last season, created a fashion trend among youngsters when they won the World Series in 1979.

Demand was so great that the turn-of-the-century-style caps were produced in a variety of colors, sometimes bearing the insignia of other major league teams, and the design also was copied by many high school and college teams.

Koch said that most teams go through about 30 to 50 dozen caps a season, with players sometimes discarding a cap after only one week during the hottest part of the summer. Winning teams, he said, seem to use more.

"I don't know if it's psychological or what," Koch said. "I don't know if they figure, 'We're winning; we're drawing a lot of fans; we're making money; let's buy some caps.' But winning teams use more than losing teams."

Other teams buy more caps, he said, because their owners give them away as presents. The Yankees usually buy a few hundred dozen caps a season, he said.

Major league caps sell for about $15 in souvenir shops, but major league teams pay less than half that, Koch said.

Of course, to collectors, the caps go up in value once they have been worn by a major leaguer. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda has a certificate good for a free gall bladder operation, given to him by a doctor for a Dodger cap. But the appeal isn't limited to Americans. A cap worn by Babe Ruth sold for $5,000 in Tokyo 15 years ago.

So, those caps "collected" by umpire Donatelli from the '67 Series must mean a lot to him.

Nope.

He gave them away.

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