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

August 25, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — 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."

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