By Mike Heffner
n recent years, the baseball cap has become more of an everyday fashion than a function of keeping the sun off of a player's head and out of his eyes on the ball diamond. Every time I turn around, I see someone wearing a baseball cap. Men and women alike wear them during the winter, spring, summer, and fall at all sorts of functions and occasions. It is amazing that a sport like baseball, that most of us so dearly love, has spurred such a fashion trend even amongst those who don't follow the game. The baseball cap, of course, originated from the game of baseball, but now, they are made in many more varieties than just those sporting the insignia of a baseball franchise. They are now made with the insignias of just about everything under the sun.
The baseball cap has gone through minimal transformations since the earliest days of the game. The primal baseball photograph of the 1846 Knickerbockers pictures six team members wearing nearly identical straw hats. Many of the earliest baseball team photos show the players posed in uniforms but without hats. This is not because they did not wear hats but rather because most early baseball photos were shot indoors and it was considered improper to wear a cap indoors. During the first two decades, after the birth of our national game, some players could be seen wearing what appeared to be boating style caps similar to what Gilligan on Gilligan's Island always had on his head.
The baseball cap, as we know it today, began to take shape during the 1860's. During this period, some players wore caps with larger brims that extended only above the face. During the 1880's, many players and teams favored the "pillbox" style cap. This style cap was not much different from the traditional baseball cap. Instead of conforming to the head of a player, it was more cylindrical in style. This "pillbox" style was used on and off by a small number of major league teams up until about 1920. It seems that the 1919 St. Louis Cardinals were the last to don the style until several National League teams decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their League by playing a few games with the antiquated style in 1976. The Pittsburgh Pirates decided that they liked the old look so much that they would go on to wear this style cap for another ten years. For the most part, the professional baseball cap has undergone very little change over the past century.
Collecting game worn professional baseball caps as a hobby can be very enjoyable and is not nearly as damaging to the pocketbook as collecting jerseys. I have been collecting caps for quite some time now and have over 50 Hall of Famers in my stable. Like most sports memorabilia, I have watched the prices of caps steadily increase over the years. I believe that caps are relatively still affordable and somewhat unappreciated by the collecting public. One of the main reasons that caps worn by Hall of Famers and star players are undervalued is because most are tough to authenticate.
There have been countless professional cap manufacturers over the past century. Some of the more prominent ones include Wright and Ditson, Reach, Spalding, Wilson, MacGregor, McAuliffe, KM Pro and New Era. Some of these companies are defunct and others have been bought out. Over the past 40 years, New Era has been the most widely used professional baseball cap and today they have a very strong hold on the industry. They have been around since the 1920's but only began to dominate the pro cap market during the 1970's.
Most of the time, tagging of a cap will only include the manufacturer and the size. Some teams, prior to the 1950's, would have the player's name sewn into the band inside the cap. This, of course, is a more desirable cap for collectors. The New York Yankees of the 1930's and early 1940's made use of this practice. There are a handful of Lou Gehrig caps on the market with this sort of identification. It seems that gentleman Lou made practice of not only tipping his caps but also giving them to his admirers. A Lou Gehrig cap is worth $50,000 to $75,000 in today's marketplace. Most game used caps have nothing more identifying the player than a number written in marker underneath the brim or on the inside mesh of the body.
Some teams have gone a bit further, such as the Cincinnati Reds of the 1960's who used special stamps to label each player's cap with their appropriate uniform number. Some people prefer to just collect different styles of team caps. When this is the case, authenticity is not a factor since these collectors usually don't care about the player who wore the cap. They are only interested in the style. A 1948 Walt Judnich Cleveland Indians cap would serve the same purpose as a Satchel Paige worn cap. Amassing styles is a challenging task that could keep a person busy for an entire collecting career. It is also more affordable than collecting caps from Hall of Famers.
The biggest challenge of authenticating game used caps occurs when dealing with those that belonged to star players. Just think, a Milwaukee Braves cap from the 1950's with no number under the brim (which can be obtained) magically becomes a Hank Aaron gamer with a few strokes of marker by the hand of a memorabilia forger. Presto, a $350 cap becomes a $5000 cap. It happens a lot, believe me, I've seen the evidence.
Fortunately, a trained eye can usually tell the difference between a fabrication and the real thing. There are a few key variables to look at when assessing the authenticity of a game worn cap. If the player's number is written in marker, take a look at the ink and try to determine if it is fresh or if it has been there for a while. Even when dealing with caps from the modern era, the ink used to mark the player's number sometimes fades or bleeds from repeated usage and sweating. After viewing enough game worn caps, it is possible for a person to be able to recognize a particular player's or equipment manager's handwritten numerals.
This type of analysis is very helpful in being able to authenticate hats. I see a lot of fakes that have heavy, brown dirt inside on the band with no wear on the outside. This is not normal. If you wear caps, take a look at the band on one of your favorites. This is how a heavily game used baseball cap should look on the inside. The people who forge game worn caps rarely take the time to fabricate use that looks real. Instead, they take a bunch of dirt and sand and grind it into the sweatband, thus, creating a used but phony look. Some players have a tendency of touching the brims of their caps a lot during the course of a game. Pitchers are notorious for this. A player's hands usually have some sort of substance (pine tar, rosin, dirt) on them. Look for finger or thumb marks on the edge of the brim. Some players sweat more than others. Look for the sweat stains on the brim and body of the cap. These usually show up as white, uneven stains.
It is very important that the cap is the correct size for the player. This is sometimes difficult to determine, as there are no record books out there on the subject. My best advice is to compile a list of caps sizes as you see them being offered. It is important to use exemplars that have very good provenance. For instance, if the cap has a letter from the player or the team, odds are that it is a legitimate gamer. It is also important to note that although most players heads do not grow or shrink over the course of their careers, they may change there hair style which could increase or decrease their cap size. Most of these changes are not drastic but could explain up to a 1/4 difference in size.
One of the most drastic changes I have ever seen is Frank Robinson going from a crew cut and size 7 and 1/8 early in his career to an afro and a size 7 and ½ during the mid 1970's. Here are just a few caps sizes taken from rock solid exemplars: Lou Gehrig (7 1/8), Pete Rose (7 –7 1/8), Roberto Clemente (6 7/8-7), Mike Piazza (7 3/8), Rickey Henderson (7 ¼), Paul Molitor (7 1/8), Barry Bonds (7 ¼), Eddie Murray (7 1/8), Willie Mays (7), Mark McGwire (7 ½).
Last but not least, make sure that the style that you are buying coincides with the years that the player was on the team. Unfortunately, most caps do not have year tags in them so it is difficult to pinpoint a specific year that it was used. An exception to this is the Wilson brand, which used a dating system during the 1960's and '70's. This can be found as a three-letter code stamped inside on the band on most pro models from that era. It is important to note that this code signifies the date of manufacture, not necessarily the date used.
It is my personal belief that the source of a baseball cap is more important than that of other forms of game used equipment. Obviously, a letter from the player or team is preferred, but even this does not ensure 100% authenticity. The only way to be 100% certain is for the player to take the cap off of his head after a game and hand it to you. Very few of us have the ability to go around and collect caps this way and we certainly can't do this for retired players so, we need to do the next best thing: lots of homework. Caps are a significant piece of a player's uniform, they are undervalued and make great displays. Treat yourself to one, you can tell your friends that your favorite player's cap went off to you.
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