A friend of mine used to say that there are cars that look fast, and there are cars that are fast (my last ride was a ’93 Corolla and it was neither, so I took his word for it). I believe this same basic philosophy can be applied to just about everything, especially when it comes to what we wear.
Just as a pair of jeans can be made to look like they’re the genuine article…lovingly worn and faded and broken in for years (but were really made by the thousands with zero attention to detail and may fall apart before they make it out of the mall), you know that the real deal comes from wonderfully maniacal obsessives who are only satisfied (and often just barely) when every yard of denim has been meticulously woven and dyed, and each stitch and rivet put in it’s place per their exacting standards. Will Arlt is one of these spectacular madmen, only a mad hatter in this case. See, Will makes baseball caps, and they don’t just look fast, they are fast.
Will’s gateway hat was Walter “Big Train” Johnson’s blue and gray Washington Senators cap that he saw at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. “I’d been in vintage clothing in New York for quite some time and I began to collect old woolen caps…take them apart by hand…redo the logos and put little visors on them,” he says.
“Everybody bought ‘em and I bought sewing machines and made them by hand and…one thing led to another.” It was the early 1980’s, and that one thing that led to another led to the creation of the Cooperstown Ballcap Co., and the rest is history. Literally.
Will started making historically accurate caps from baseball’s earliest days, many of the teams and their tams long forgotten. It turns out that making caps by hand—one at a time with a six to eight week turnaround time, about 500 a year—wasn’t a sustainable business model (with no help from domestic manufacturing’s disappearing act), and Cooperstown was forced to close.
However, Will and Cooperstown left behind a legendary reputation and an obsessive fan base that wanted, needed more. (Today, the old Cooperstown catalogs and postcards fetch as much, if not more, than the caps…if you can find someone who’ll part with one.)
To fill the gap, there were always caps that looked fast, but they were a mere boxy vehicle for a logo, mass-produced props that neither fit nor wore (nor had a soul) like a wool flannel, canvas lined cap with a buttery soft leather sweatband made by humans who still remembered and cared about the way things used to be done. (Ideal makes sized caps…7, 7 1/8, that kind of thing. Your head and mine aren’t the same size, so why should our hats be?)
Ebbet’s Field Flannels has obviously done their part, but put far more energy into a broad selection of apparel. And Will is always eager to collaborate with like minded obsessives…”but there are so many, I cannot really remember,” he says. “We do all sorts of oddball projects, we’re making some caps for the Wright Bros. at the moment.”
So Will brought his caps back, this time under the banner of the Ideal Cap Co., offering a smaller (though no less curated) selection of caps from (among others) Institutions (the 1936 Sing Sing Inmates), the Negro Leagues (the 1929 Baltimore Black Sox), Semi-Pros (the 1950 Red Top Ale Brewery Team), Women’s Baseball (the Rockford “There’s no crying in baseball!” Peaches), Worldwide Baseball (the 1954 Yomiyuri Giants), Fictional Caps (the “Bad News” Bears), and Old Leagues (the 1915 Buffalo Blues). From the Ideal Web site:
It’s a wonderful thing, a well made ball cap. It will keep the sun off your face, or turn the cap around and it will do the same for the back of your neck. Grabbing the visor you can kill a noisome insect with a flick; it weathers the cold and damp. And the texture, something to feel and grab on to. If you want to add a logo, the cap will let them know who you like. It’s a wonderful thing, a well made cap.
Now splitting his time between just outside Cooperstown and Bisbee, AZ (“The strangest town in the United States”), Will nobly keeps heads swathed in soft crown caps, orchestrating, as he puts it, “the perfect segue between fashion and baseball.” Will has lived many lives (philosophy student, music engineer and producer, vintage clothing impresario to name but a few), but these days he is Ideal and Ideal is him.
“It’s a pretty small operation swimming in a sea of details,” he shares. “You gotta’ get the right fabric, you gotta’ get the right leather, you gotta’ get the right horsehair backing, and most if those businesses have gone out of the United States. And then you have to find find someone who can actually make the caps.” (All 20 steps of them).
Now made in Los Angeles by a small band of loyalists whose efforts Will marshals himself, the most challenging part of the Ideal process is deciding on which cap to release next (about one new design is introduced every month). While Major League Baseball has become a licensing challenge (their throwback aesthetic being more about the frosting than the cake), Will concentrates on the smaller teams with bigger histories.
LOS ANGELES WHITE SOX 1946
Abe Saperstein founded the Negro West Coast League at the end of World War II when black baseball finally took root on the west coast with the major influx of workers in war industries. There were six teams: the San Diego Tigers, Los Angeles White Sox, San Francisco Sea Lions, Oakland Larks, Seattle Steelheads and Portland Roses. On June 4, the Sox lost their season opener to Portland 8-3. Fifteen games later, sporting a record 3-12 they were gone. No player had more than 22 at bats. The mysterious Velma Revada, a female, hit .417 for the most evanescent of major league teams.
The other challenge, even bigger than the MVP lawyers at MLB? “Sometimes colors are hard to get, like bright orange,” Will laments, “and you have to go searching…digging in all of Google’s corners. I just found some woman up in Canada who’s got a 15 yard bolt of beautiful old orange flannel!” So while we wait to see what he makes with that, Will Arlt keeps hope and Ideal Cap alive.
“To me, the woolen baseball cap of 1920 through 1940…it’s something that’s never been made better. There’s no improvement on that, and if you can continue to make it, it’s of a certain value to the world of fashion and baseball. When you get them good and worn in, they look like something from 1910.”
All the caps mentioned here, and many, many others, are proudly available at the Ideal Cap Co. website. There are few opportunities in today’s world where $49 can make you as happy.