We can look to the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s aptly named 1984 album, ‘Born In The U.S.A’, for an exhibition of ubiquitous American style. A figure in front of a red and white striped backdrop dons a white tee and a pair of washed out Levi’s 501s, but hanging out of the back pocket of these American-blue jeans is something that’s just as iconic—a ballcap.
The ballcap stands as the most accessible piece of headwear that can be worn by anyone, anywhere, and what began as a simple piece of sportswear, now rests on the heads of half the world’s population. But when did it all begin? And how did the ballcap make the transition from a functional sports cap to the casual crown of the everyman? To answer those questions, we’ve taken a moment to provide you with a brief history of the ballcap.
The history of the ballcap can be traced right back to the mid-nineteenth century, a time when baseball was rapidly growing in popularity.
In 1849, the New York Knickerbockers sported the first known baseball caps which were, in fact, made from straw. Highly ineffective and most likely very itchy, the Knickerbockers ditched the straw caps a few years later for a wool cap produced by Peck & Snyder. This new cap featured a flat, panelled crown made from merino wool and an short visor to help shield the players’ eyes from the sun.
As baseball continued to grow, this style of cap was adopted across the United States as more teams were organized. A pivotal moment for the ballcap was in 1860, when an amateur club named the Brooklyn Excelsiors donned a ball cap with a longer brim and a deeper, button-topped crown—two key ingredients of the modern day ballcap.
Other styles were introduced over the next 40 years, including the ‘pillbox’—a ballcap with a horizontally-striped round crown and flat button-top—but it was the ‘Brooklyn Style’ cap introduced by The Excelsiors that would become the norm by 1900, with most major league teams completing their uniforms with this style or something similar.
The Modern Day Ballcap
Ballcap giants, New Era, began supplying the first professional ballcaps to Major League players in 1934. Beginning with the Cleveland Indians (who are thankfully abandoning the below logo next season), the New York-based company were the first to tailor ballcaps to players needs, a service so in demand that the majority of Major League baseball teams wearing New Era caps by the 1950s.
In 1954, New Era reworked their fitted baseball caps to introduce the iconic style we know and love today, the 59Fifty. This new fitted style featured a six-panel crown with ventilating eyelet holes on each panel, a button-top, and a large visor adorned with eight rows of stitching.
Ballcaps in Mainstream Fashion
The 59Fifty was instantly popular with ballplayers, and spectators soon started buying replica versions to support their teams. These new caps featured flexible plastic in the visor, making them easier to re-shape to the wearer’s desire, which only helped the 59Fifty’s march into mainstream fashion. By the late 1970s, adverts for New Era caps were being placed in sporting publications.
Many Baseball historians note Tom Selleck as partly responsible for the ballcap-boom, after his character in the 1980s crime drama, Magnum P.I., regularly wore a Detroit Tigers cap in the successful series. The 80s also elevated Hip Hop music to a highly influential place in the cultural movement, and ballcaps were part of many rappers’ uniform. Iconic artists such as Dr. Dre, Chuck D, and the Beastie Boys were just a few among many who famously wore the 59Fifty.
Spinoffs of the ballcap have also contributed to its ubiquitous status. The ‘snapback’ is a style which features similar construction to the 59Fifty, but with an adjustable plastic strap at the back of the cap to make for adjustable sizing. Snapbacks are also available in ‘Trucker’ form, on which some of the rear panels are made of mesh to provide greater ventilation.
But for those looking for that classic, Knickerbocker-era cap, there are several notable maker that continue in the old style, including Ebbets Field Flannels, Ideal Cap Co., and Mitchell & Ness. So, no matter what you’re looking for in a ballcap design, there’s a style for you.