Thinking Caps

Looking under the lids of baseball hat collectors

As a lifelong baseball player, I have worn ball caps pretty much my entire life, but I really started to wear them for style about halfway through my freshman year of high school. Sparking it all was my purple and yellow Montgomery Biscuits cap. It’s now over seven years old, but the Double-A ball club still has one of the best logos in baseball. The purple-based hat features an actual biscuit, with butter in the center, and eyes on the top, hands to the side. It’s even wearing cleats. I remember seeing a photo in a tweet from MLB, and I thought to myself, I have to have this.

Seven years later, my collection numbers 138 and counting. My favorite style of hats are from New Era’s 59Fifty brand, which make up just over half of my collection. The others are older caps that I don’t wear anymore, but they all have some significance in my life. Whether it was little league games, travel baseball or just hats I wore to play in my front yard, they all have a place in my collection.

Though many of my lids represent minor league teams, I have some NHL and MLB ones as well. However, there has to be something unique about them to make it into my collection. I don’t own very many MLB on-field hats. I know I don’t stack up in terms of sheer numbers against some major collectors, but I wanted to look under their lids and see where their inspirations for their collections come from. Some may call their collecting an obsession, but I call it a passion.

Almost 30 years of hats

In 1989, John Beare’s father bought him his first fitted cap — a New Era California Angels hat from Angels Stadium. From there, it took Beare about 10 years to get his collection to 30 hats, but he didn’t start seriously collecting until 2002. Today, his collection is nearing 900.

“Most of the memories I have of my father, he was wearing a hat, so that was likely my biggest inspiration,” said Beare in an email.

There’s certain criteria from which I choose to buy my hats, and Beare is no different. I look for color ways, or color schemes, that are uncommon, especially in MLB teams. I also prefer a clean logo, something that isn’t overdone or flashy; Beare is the same way. Even though it may be what’s popular, we both agree that traditionally simple logos should reign supreme.

In the summer of 2015, my family took a vacation to Toronto and saw a few Blue Jays games. I was walking around in the team store, and a particular hat caught my attention. It was a Blue Jays lid, but the colorway was a charcoal gray, black, red and gold as opposed to their traditional blue and white at the time. It also had a commemorative Roberto Alomar Hall of Fame patch on the side, adding to its individuality. I didn’t have the money to buy it, but my mother did, and to this day, it’s my favorite and most expensive cap.

Narrowing down his favorite hat isn’t as easy for Beare. With a collection as large as his, he sometimes can’t even pick a top 15. However, his most prized cap is an Ottawa Senators hat he created at a New Era fan event he was invited to in 2013. As for his most expensive, Beare spent $100 on the original Atlanta Braves Diamond Era fitted hat. He bought it from a private seller, and although the seller was asking $135 for the hat, Beare was buying two of them and got a discount. At the time, the caps were banned because of the controversial “screaming savage” logo, and they’ve since been easier to find, but Beare doesn’t regret his decision.

I worked at Lids, a major ball cap retailer, for a short time, and I once had a customer ask me if we had any hats we knew of that were made in the U.S. I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, so we looked through each cap to see if there were any. All were made in China. This was the first time I realized that people were very particular about where their products were made. I don’t have a preference, as a majority of mine are made in China; likewise, Beare says it isn’t a big deal to him.

“When ‘Made In China’ first became an issue, I became very aware of the differences almost to the point where I let it ruin my enjoyment of collecting,” he explained. “Fortunately I relaxed my views, and while I do have a preference for U.S. made caps (there is a difference in quality) the reality is most of the customs are imports, so I just roll with it.”

An organized display is key for major collectors, and although Beare’s collection is always changing, it’s organized by sports, league and team. Because of that, it can take several hours for him to place newly acquired caps in their proper place. My collection has no real pattern, but if my collection ever gets to be Beare’s size, I’m sure I will find my own Dewey Decimal System.

Small-town hat collecting

In 2010, the population of Rawlins, Wyoming, was just over 9000. The closest MLB team, the Colorado Rockies, is about three and a half hours south. This is where hat collector Courtney James lives. Fairly isolated, James does most of her hat shopping online, but there are pros and cons that come with buying hats online.

“I’ve been lucky enough to find some great stuff online and haven’t had too much bad luck buying online,” said James. “Sometimes I get things that are too small, or too big, but that’s the hand I was dealt.”

James began collecting caps in 2013, but before that, she would buy caps if she saw one she liked in a store, or if she were able to get to a Rockies game. Now, like myself, James sticks to New Era’s website, but she will occasionally buy from Hatland, HatClub and MiLB.com. Her current collection is right around 100, but her goal is to collect all of the MLB on-field hats.

Growing up, James said most of the men in her life wore baseball hats, and her father even made her put one on whenever she went outside. While I was never made to put a hat on, it was something that was more of a routine for me. I’d usually go outside and play baseball, which should always be done with a cap on. I see a lot of people wearing lids today, and as a collector, I like to compare what I’m wearing and the hats in my collection with others. If I see someone wearing a lid I’ve never seen before, my curiosity is instantly sparked. I’ll either make a mental note of the the hats characteristics — the color, style, team, company, etc. — or I will go talk to the person briefly about the hat and ask them where they got it.

“It’s nice to see I’m not the only one that appreciates the quality and care that New Era puts into their product,” she said. “I see hats as a growing fashion trend, and I really enjoy seeing other people wearing hats.”

In terms of American-made and imported hats, James usually doesn’t have a choice. With a lot of her shopping done online, she gets what she orders, which are imported most of the time. Although she notices a difference between hats made in the U.S. and China, some of the Chinese caps she has are good quality as well.

Recently, James has been buying a lot of NFL lids. While I will never shy away from the style, I will most likely not get NFL caps until I’ve essentially exhausted my MLB, NHL and MiLB options. I don’t enjoy the NFL logos (or the sport, for that matter) in the same way I do for hockey and baseball. Personally, the logos don’t seem as original as they do for hockey and baseball teams. Most of them simply don’t appeal to me.

In terms of her favorite, James has a red Cleveland Indians hat she loves. Although it isn’t necessarily rare, she says picking her favorite hat is very tough.

“I think trying to pick a favorite hat would be kind of like trying to pick a favorite child, and I’m not sure that I could do it,” said James. “Every hat I have has its own story or special meaning to me. I can usually remember where and why I bought pretty much everything in my collection.”

The big-time

Almost every person would say that having 1000 hats isn’t necessary. I don’t see it that way — I see it as a goal. I’ve always heard the phrase “dream big,” and after talking with Ben Christensen, I found the goal I want to reach. While I might be a little over 10 percent of the way there, I still have more than enough work to do.

Growing up in Bakersfield, California, and spending his teen years between Portland and Eugene, Oregon, Christensen technically started collecting in 1998, at the age of 15. However, by 2010, he only had about 10 hats. In that same year, he started buying a few minor league baseball caps and one of every Major League team. From there, he bought every on-field hat he could get his hands on, and his collection has reached four digits of mostly baseball teams.

“Of that 1,000 only two of them are NHL, 13 are NFL, eight are NBA, three are University of Oregon and the rest are Major League or Minor League Baseball hats,” said Christensen.

There are 244 minor league baseball teams, and usually three hats for each team, not including promotional nights or holidays — one for home games, one for away games and one or two for an alternate jersey. Christensen said he has essentially maxed out his minor league collection, except for two hats to finish one specific collection. While he continues to search for retro MLB caps, he says MLB’s “Turn Back the Clock” nights have helped with that, as they bring old logos and hats out of retirement for a few nights a season.

I think a part of why I wear hats is because I like the way my face and head look with a cap on. I have long hair, and I seem to prefer wearing a hat to not wearing one because it’s more comfortable for me and my hair. While Christensen has long hair, he also has a great beard, which is a part of what he attributes his collecting to.

“The one thing I am thankful for is that I was able to grow a fierce beard in my mid-20s, which, for some reason, completely changed my opinion of how hats look on me,” he explained. “Now, I can’t stop wearing them. Hats have pretty much become a regular piece of clothing in my day-to-day wardrobe.”

Christensen has two bachelor’s degrees in news/editorial journalism and magazine journalism with a minor in English. His blog, Hats and Tats: A Lifestyle, is a daily tally of all of the New Era hats he owns, and he says every lid he owns “has a special marking recognizing players, stats or special events within the history and era of the team.”

In 1999 and 2000, Christensen was a batboy for the Bakersfield Blaze, a former Class-A minor league team in California. Being their batboy was his first job in baseball, and the hat he wore is a significant piece of Christensen’s collection.

“It’s pretty close to impossible to find another [Bakersfield Blaze hat] like it,” he said. “Even though it’s way too small for me now, as my head grew two sizes since I was last able to wear it, I’ll never get rid of it.”

As for buying new hats, Christensen realizes he has the rest of his life to continue collecting. While I shop a lot at Lids, Christensen doesn’t shop there often. Instead, he shops at HatClub, where he gets a solid employee discount, 4ucaps.com, MickeysPlace.com, and a few mom and pop shops in different cities he travels to.

While Beare has his collection organized by different sports, leagues and teams, Christensen has his organized in alphabetical order. He has his minor league hats mounted in his office, and his on-field MLB collection and World Series side patch from 1983 to the present in his bedroom. The rest are stored in Hat Club bag duffels, which hold about 35 caps each.

While it may not make a difference to Beare or James, Christensen prefers hats made in the U.S, but he knows that every hat will not be made in America, so he’s realistic about collecting. For remakes of hats prior to 1997, they don’t bother him as much because they’re made of wool. They will shrink a little bit after he sweats in them, and because he grows his hair out every two years, he says they “fit like a dream.”

“Hats in the U.S. are made with much softer polyester and it molds to the head better over time,” Christensen explained.

We all have our reasons

Baseball hats are a passion of mine. When most people see my collection here at school, they think I’m nuts. And that’s less than half of what I actually have, and much less than what Beare and Christensen have. Hats gave me an identity in high school, and they still do. They’re something that people associate with me, and I think that’s one of my favorite things about them. They can tell a story just from the logos and colors without ever having to say a word. While it’s an identifier for myself, it can also serve as an identifier for a team, city and country.

“Hats represent more than just a tool that provides shade, they serve as the flag of the team and city they represent,” said Christensen. “They create a conversation for the wearer without them ever having to speak a word.”
My appreciation for baseball hats goes beyond the aesthetics. Each one holds a special significance in my life, and each lid tells a different story. I have a New York Mets hat with a World Series patch on the side because my friends and I thought my hair resembled that of star pitcher Jacob DeGrom; my gray, black, red and gold Blue Jays hat reminds me that Toronto is one of my favorite cities in North America. I’ve got 138 different hats and 138 different stories. Maybe someday I will have 1000 stories.

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