It’s Much, Much More Than Just a Hat
Members of Red Sox Nation, it turns out, buy Franchise caps in record numbers. According to national hat retailer Lids, Sox Franchise hats account for a whopping 26 percent of the leaguewide Franchise market. No other team comes within 10 percentage points. And yet, Lids reports that among all the myriad styles of hats it sold last year, Red Sox caps were second, by a two-to-one margin, to Yankees caps. In other words, Sox fans are uniquely, disproportionately, astoundingly loyal to their preferred model. But why?
It has partly to do with Trot Nixon, more to do with the team he played for, and everything to do with Boston and its ethos. It sounds almost silly to say, but the Franchise is the first baseball cap to fully capture a city. It is only fitting (pun intended) that it would be ours.
Growing up in the Boston suburbs in the 1980s, Doug Karp and Ben Fischman loved to wear hats, but couldn’t find a decent place to buy them. The selection at the mall or at sporting goods stores like Herman’s was always crammed into ill-tended racks in the corner. Too often they had to settle for a cap with cheap mesh backing, or a B stuck flat against the fabric instead of stitched out on it. For something so simple, there was a surprising amount that could go wrong.
In fact, no one had gotten it right since 1860, when the Brooklyn Excelsiors became the first squad to wear what we’d recognize today as a modern ballcap (theirs were black with white stitching at the seams). Although “Brooklyn caps” soon became de rigueur on the diamond, people simply did not wear them in polite company. Considering how bland most were, there was little incentive to. The Red Sox, for example, donned unadorned (often white, sometimes red or blue striped) hats from their 1901 founding into the Great Depression. In 1931, they added a solitary red sock, but shelved it after one season, spending 1932 in the wilderness of logo-less headwear before finally settling on the style they’ve worn ever since. (Nobody seems quite sure why that design stuck.) From a fashion and manners perspective, caps for non-ballplayers remained taboo for the next few decades. But when social change rocked the ’60s, sartorial mores began to loosen. They continued loosening, and by the ’80s, hats at last started appearing off the field.
Still, as young Karp and Fischman discovered, the crown was always too high or the bowl the wrong shape or the front puffed up too much. All this was of little concern to adults, but Karp, Fischman, and their friends were embracing the idea that hats shouldn’t just be declarations of allegiances. They should also be deliberately chosen components of one’s attire.
For years the two implored their fathers, bigwig shopping-mall developers Steven Fischman and Stephen Karp (who later unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Red Sox), to open a new kind of hat store in one of their area malls, a store that would address the fit of the cap as well as the decorations sewn onto it. Their dads brushed off the idea, but the teenagers kept at it. Finally, having heard enough, the fathers told their sons to stop talking and go do it themselves.
They did, opening a cart in 1992 in Chestnut Hill’s Atrium Mall, then owned by their dads’ development group. Fischman was a junior at BU and Karp still in high school at Belmont Hill. The venture, called Lids, was an immediate hit. College students flocked to the cart, clamoring for well-fitting hats—the most popular of which were adjustable collegiate designs sporting easily broken-down crowns and bills that frayed quickly (Trot Nixon would have been jealous). These customers were less concerned with representing alma maters or their sports teams than with making a statement. South Carolina Cocks and Oregon State Beavers models, you’ll be shocked to learn, moved especially well with this crowd. “There was something in the early days of Lids hats that was irreverent,” Fischman recalls. “It was a kid’s thing, and that was part of the fun.”
The cart rapidly grew into a full store in the Atrium, and then, within a year, into six other stores in New England. But some of the hats they were selling, notably the MLB ones, still didn’t fit perfectly. Karp and Fischman realized that if they applied the same principles that made the college hats popular—which was really the fit, not the sophomoric double-entendres—to other hats, particularly Sox hats, they’d have gold. College campuses have a reputation as fashion incubators (major retailers have been known to send employees to schools just to take notes on how kids dress), so if they could make the perfect MLB hat and sell it in a college town like Boston, they could sell it anywhere.