How the Baseball Cap Went From Athletic Gear to Fashion Statement

A tip of the cap to the nation’s crowning accessory

A variety of baseball caps
Clockwise from top left, caps worn by: Chris Lindsay of the Detroit Tigers during the 1906 season; Ila Borders, the first woman to pitch in an NCAA or NAIA game; Christy Mathewson (1880-1925), history and date unknown; Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees; Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland Athletics when he logged his 300th career save in 1995; Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves, 1972-73. (Richard Gary / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

The first-ever baseball game that you would recognize took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846, when the New York Knickerbockers played the more prosaically named New York Baseball Club. There had been bat-and-glove competitions throughout the Northeast, to be sure, but the Knickerbockers made things official, formalizing the number of teammates, the rules of play and the uniform: They arrived at the stadium, Elysian Fields, dressed in matching shirts and pantaloons and wide-brimmed hats made of thin, plaited wood strips.

That day’s game featured nine innings, nine field positions and an untimed pace of play—customs that hold to this day. Though the Knickerbockers’ stipulation that each player “must also have the reputation of a gentleman” has been sadly strained over the years by dugout-clearing brawls and cheating scandals, not to mention the unsporting use of steroids, the modern game still owes a great deal to the mid-19th century.

But the straw hats didn’t last.

Cap worn by Julie Croteau
Maui Stingrays cap worn by former Colorado Silver Bullets star Julie Croteau in 1994. Croteau, one of only two women on the team, cut a hole in the back of the cap for her ponytail.

The Knickerbockers switched to merino wool within a couple of years, and the design eventually acquired a narrow front brim and specialized stitching to support a higher, more comfortable crown made of six panels; that differentiated the hat from its forebears, including the front-leaning newsboy’s cap and the double-long-brimmed deerstalker hat. The stubby new model was designed not for style, but rather to keep the sun out of players’ eyes. Then in 1901, the Detroit Tigers made arguably the farthest-reaching innovation in the game’s history: They put their namesake animal on their caps, turning a utilitarian sunshade into a battle flag. The cap’s usefulness and brandability would turn it into perhaps America’s greatest fashion export, changing the way people dress in every country of the world.

Cap worn by Betty Yahr
Cap worn by Betty Yahr, a right fielder for the Rockford Peaches in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1946.

The “Philadelphia style,” with a sturdier brim, debuted in 1908, and was quickly embraced by major-league teams. Designers continued to tinker, as crowns grew higher and materials became sturdier. The advent of television—the first major-league game was telecast on August 26, 1939—brought a whole new audience to the sport and precipitated a rush of uniform redesigns and team relocations. By 1945 every team was wearing its own branded hat, and the accessory soon threaded its way into the hearts of children, especially those who played Little League and would take the look into adulthood.

In the 1960s and ’70s, agricultural companies began embellishing their foam-front hats with company logos and cheap, plastic adjustable straps. Mesh backing also made the hats more breathable for workers, and long-haul drivers embraced these new accessories, inaugurating the phenomenon of the trucker hat.

In the 1980s, New Era, the company that had supplied Major League Baseball for decades, started selling authentic team-branded hats to fans. Soon they were de rigueur. Tom Selleck’s character in “Magnum, P.I.,” set in Hawaii, wore a Tigers hat. You could see baseball hats on the cover of French Elle, in rap videos and atop the head of Princess Diana, whose occasional appearance in jeans and a baseball cap helped nurture her reputation as the “people’s princess”: It signaled approachability, even for a royal. And it worked for other luminaries as well. Steve Reich, a composer whose work has been played in some of the grandest halls in the world, and Paul Simon, one of the most successful pop musicians of the last 50 years, are both inseparable from rumpled, unbranded caps, even when they’re wearing black tie. No stuffy art-world or rock-star glamour here, the hats say. These are millionaires you could have a beer with.

Cap worn by Honus Wagner (1874-1955) of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Cap worn by Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners on April 25, 1997, when he hit his record-setting 11th, 12th and 13th home runs of the season.
Cap worn by Hal Newhouser of the Detroit Tigers.
Cap worn by Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson during the 2001 World Series.
Cap worn by Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox during the 1987 season.
Cap worn by Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets during the 1984 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on July 10, 1984.
Cap worn by Rickey Henderson of the New York Yankees during the 1987 season.
Cap worn by Detroit Tigers third baseman George Kell during the 1948 season.
Cap worn by Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox during Game 3 of the 2004 World Series.
Cap worn by Robin Yount of the Milwaukee Brewers during the 1983 season.
Cap worn by Bret Saberhagen of the Kansas City Royals during the 1985 World Series, October 19-27.
Cap worn by Christy Mathewson (1880-1925), history and date unknown.
Cap worn by Kirby Puckett during the All-Star Game on July 13, 1993, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Cap worn by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Duke Snider during the 1959 World Series, the first World Championship won by a West Coast club. The Dodgers defeated the Chicago White Sox, 4-2.
Cap worn by Chet Brewer of the Kansas City Royals.
Cap worn by Buck Leonard when he played first baseman for the Homestead Grays between 1934 and 1950.
Cap worn by Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. during the 1991 All-Star Game in Toronto.
Cap worn by Renae Youngberg, who played third base for the Grand Rapids Chicks of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1953-54 season.
Cap worn by Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals at the All-Star Game in Philadelphia on July 9, 1996.

Similarly, when Jay-Z released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996, he appeared on the cover hidden under a fedora and scarf fit for a mafia don. Ten years later, on his way to becoming the first hip-hop billionaire, his Kingdom Come album showed him in a Yankees hat. Once he was a true kingpin, the rapper-magnate needed to telegraph relatability, not braggadocio.

The baseball hat deflates grandeur so well because, theoretically, anyone could be underneath; as memorabilia goes, it’s cheaper than a jersey and goes with any outfit. Politicians, whether George W. Bush with the Texas Rangers or Barack Obama with the Chicago White Sox, use the hat like a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair. It shows that they are one of us, with apolitical interests that transcend—and ennoble—their own ambitions. For those who prefer their consumption conspicuous, you can find baseball hats from designers like Louis Vuitton in excess of $1,000. Designers know that in a ball cap, even a supermodel can look like the girl next door.

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This article is a selection from the April issue of Smithsonian magazine

Film Director Spike Lee
Director Spike Lee, born in Atlanta and pictured here at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, has long repped the Brooklyn Dodgers on his caps—though he’s also shown love to the Yankees.

Even though baseball’s biggest stars switch caps regularly whenever they’re traded, the hat itself, whether a high-fashion brand from Europe or a New Era model made in Asia, remains a symbol of belonging: Its message sits at the literal top of our being. You can see instantly, even from a distance, whether a person is a veteran, a Pirates fan or a political partisan. Even in football, basketball and hockey, the first thing athletes do when they win a championship is to snap a new special-edition cap on their heads to make it official. When your group is at its proudest, only that brim and tall crown will do.

Editor's note, March 22, 2021: A photo caption in this story has been corrected to state that director Spike Lee was born in Atlanta, not Brooklyn.