It's Much, Much More Than Just a Hat

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

Before Game 1 of the 2004 World Series, Red Sox equipment manager Joe Cochran had bad news for Trot Nixon. Major League Baseball, Cochran informed the Sox right fielder, had mandated that all players wear a new hat for the start of the series. It was identical to the New Era 59Fifty, a navy blue wool model with a stylized red B, that the team had worn all season—only this one had a commemorative World Series patch on the left side. Nixon, who had worn the same hat all year, bristled. "That wasn’t going to fly with me," he recalls.

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The issue wasn’t superstition. Nixon just thinks it’s impossible to find caps that fit right. So every year, after settling on one in spring training, he’d put his hat through an elaborate breaking-in process. The first step was digging into the front inside panel and pulling out the white mesh holding up the 59Fifty’s boxy structure. Then he’d beat the hell out of it: stretching the hat, sweating it through, sometimes simply leaving its gross, sweat-soaked carcass lying on the field during batting practice to dry in the sun. "The way I’ve always seen it, it’s a hardhat," Nixon says. "I really respect the guys who put their hardhats on every day and work their butts off. I didn’t want to be someone who had to be prim and proper."

Once the regular season started, Nixon’s hat endured further abuses. Before every game, he would jog out past his normal right field position, where Sox bullpen catcher Dana LeVangie tossed him a rosin bag. Nixon applied the adhesive to his brim; during the game he could tap his fingers against it to pick up the gunk. "I like for my hands to be tackified, be sticky out in the outfield," he says. While at bat, he’d fold up his cap and shove it into his back pocket. "It kind of gets pancaked and takes its own form back there." At year’s end, when the hat was admittedly "pretty rank," Nixon would present it to his father, who mercifully washed the thing and displayed it in a cabinet back home in North Carolina.

For Cochran to sidle up to Nixon and ask him to wear a new cap for the 2004 series, then, was something akin to Pakistan asking India to peaceably relinquish its nuclear arms. Cochran understood as much. "I said, ‘Joe,’" Nixon recalls. "And I looked at him. And he goes, ‘All right.’" So Cochran ironed the patch onto the side of Nixon’s old hat. Spared any headwear trauma, the right fielder hit .357 for the series, slamming a key two-out, two-run double in the clinching Game 4.

Much like the Sox’s former right fielder, I am also exceptionally finicky about the fit of my Red Sox hats. The last time I tried to buy a New Era 59Fifty, the model all major- and minor-league ball-players wear on the field, was in 2003, when I made the spring training pilgrimage to Fort Myers with my father. The hat was constructed of six navy blue wool panels, sewn together and joined at the crown by a blue button, and attached to a flat but malleable brim. On the back was the small red, white, and blue Major League Baseball logo—the 59Fifty’s imprimatur of authenticity. There was of course also the familiar red B, stitched out in all its seriffed glory on the front. But it was the mesh structure lurking behind the letter that bothered me. It caused the front to puff out at its middle seam, making it look like I was wearing a billboard. And the cap’s deep bowl came down too far, pushing my ears out (so I looked like Dumbo wearing a billboard). Worst of all, the wool was too hot in the Florida sun, especially for a fat schvitz-box like me.

By May, I had replaced my 59Fifty with a slouch-fitted, garment-wash cotton model known as a Franchise hat. I picked it up in the giant souvenir shop across the street from Fenway, now called the Official Red Sox Team Store. The thing looked as if it’d been through the washer about 10 times, and was soft enough to feel that way, too. Where my 59Fifty sat up stiffly, the Franchise, with its unstructured design, rested naturally on the front of my head. At the time of purchase, the cap was navy blue with a red B, but thanks to all that sweat (plus sun and chlorine), its color can now be best described as various shades of brownish ick. I couldn’t love it more.

I’m not the only one. My roommates own Sox Franchise hats. My friends own Sox Franchise hats. My roommates’ friends’ mothers’ enemies own Sox Franchise hats. If you put down this magazine and step outside, you’ll see someone wearing one right now.

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.

The next step was convincing manufacturers that the fit was more important than the logo. It was a hard sell at first, but as Lids expanded (eventually to hundreds of stores), they gained leverage and soon found a partner in Dedham-based Twins Enterprise (recently renamed Twins ’47), one of the largest hat makers in the country. Starting in the mid-’90s, Lids and Twins made samples out of all types of fabrics with all types of embroideries: felt, twill, cotton, wool, synthetics. They tried different stitching patterns, added patches, took off patches. Just as significant, they also decided to forgo the traditional hat-sizing scale. Instead of nine sizes that measured sweatband circumference—the standard 6 7/8 to 8 inches—Lids and Twins used just four. The small, medium, large, and XL sizes were easier for customers to understand and more economically efficient for Lids: If the company could carry less inventory, it stood a better chance of not stockpiling unsold hats. Every so often, boxes of samples came in from Twins. Karp, Fischman, and Lids’ head of product development, Craig Rodia, would slam the caps on, compare notes, and pass a few out to friends for trial runs.

After a year, they had it. Cotton delivered the relaxed, vintage look they wanted. And after creating their new sizing scale, they had achieved a more holistic fit: The caps did not pull uncomfortably in any spot, or crease, or have a bowl that either came down too low (Dumbo again) or stopped too high (the Tweedledee-and-Tweedledum look). Today every major university and North American pro league except the NFL (which has an exclusive deal with Reebok) licenses the sale of Franchise hats.

During the 2001 All-Star break, Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Paul Quantrill took time out to discuss the Red Sox’s gritty play with a Globe reporter. "They’re just dirt dogs…their players just keep playing hard," Quantrill said. "Trot Nixon may be the best example of all of a dirt dog." Soon after the story appeared, the term "dirt dog," heretofore unknown, became part of the vernacular. Talking heads, sportswriters, and radio hosts used it nonstop; Fenway hawkers started emblazoning shirts with the phrase; someone launched a Dirt Dogs blog. We all loved the idea that the Sox were winning not with the most gifted players, but with the scrappiest. They were like Larry Bird on a baseball diamond.

Capturing the fit and feel of what Trot Nixon wore on the field, the Franchise hat was perfect for the moment. It had been in stores for six years, but had yet to make a real mark. Sales exploded in 2002 and 2003, says Twins marketing director Steven David, just as the Dirt Dogs were cementing themselves as fan favorites. "A broken-in Franchise hat with the salt and sweat marks on the side, it’s the same symbolism as Trot Nixon," Ben Fischman says. According to Tim Pettit, a manager at the Official Red Sox Team Store, fans’ buying habits almost always reflect the style and character of the team they’re watching. The era of the Dirt Dogs was no exception. "That vintage look, in both T-shirts and hats, was huge during that time," Pettit says.

The core fans, then, had literally bought in. But there was an implicit message in their purchasing habits. The players most commonly referred to as Dirt Dogs—Jason Varitek, Brian Daubach, and Nixon—were all white. The unseemly inference was that they had to work harder and play smarter to compete with minority athletes like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Nobody ever said it out loud, but many fans nevertheless bought the inference, identifying with these Sox’s workaday attitudes. The cap’s initial popularity reinforced, if nothing else, Boston’s enduring tribalism: For all our outward progressivism, we are most comfortable with the familiar.

The cap likely would have remained a niche favorite were it not for broader cultural trends. At the turn of this century, the Gap, J.Crew, and Abercrombie & Fitch made what had traditionally been called "weekend wear" more casual and hip: overwashed polo shirts, relaxed-fit jeans, caps with frayed bills—new clothes passed off as vintage, with a worn-in look and feel. The Sox Franchise cap fit right into that aesthetic.

Moving with the trend, casual fans and, gasp, women started to buy them, and in other colors—even pink. At first, nobody thought much of this. Back in ’03, I bought my mom a pink Franchise for her birthday and never considered that there might be a problem. But then 2004 happened, and rooting for the Red Sox became the thing for everyone to do.

For hard-core fans—the ones who would tell you with a straight face that they were 40 years old but had been waiting 86 years for the championship—all this was too much. The pink hats were now everywhere, and, unfairly or not, they came to be seen as the most in-your-face form of bandwagoning possible. This was classic Boston provincialism, scorning all who had not yet done penance for the common cause. The hat granted access to people who didn’t deserve it, the thinking went, at once emasculating and cheapening true fandom. Die-hards instinctively pushed back, finding a receptive forum in sports talk radio. The newspapers followed with stories of their own. "Pink-hatter" fast became a slur for the new, casual fan—the one more concerned with Johnny Damon’s hair than his on-base percentage. The furor has hardly abated, which may help account for a roughly 25 percent drop in pink-hat sales last year at the team store.

That doesn’t mean the casual fan has quit buying hats, though. "Bling hats," Pettit says, are the new pink. In 2007, Shonda Schilling, Curt’s wife, wore a homemade rhinestone-and-sequin-bedazzled B on the field one day. Twins picked up the style and put it on the shelves, where it quickly sold out. This year, the company plans to introduce five new bling varieties. And so it goes: Even rabid Sox loyalists cannot impede the evolution of a hat or the new fans who’d like to wear it. Indeed, walk into the Official Red Sox Team Store today and there’s a style for everybody, almost 150 on display at any given time, between the Franchises and their adjustable versions: yellow, black, green, orange, orange on black, black on black, orange sherbet, lime, pink, pink on navy, classic camouflage (popular with the troops), and hunting camouflage (popular with wayward-aiming former vice presidents). There are hats with vintage B’s and hats with dangling socks. Wally the Green Monster has his own line. Santa’s hat makes a meta-appearance atop a B on the red Christmas-edition youth cap. It goes on.

Curiously, though, the store does not move the flat-brim model that is popular everywhere except Boston: the on-field 59Fifty, but with a straighter and stiffer brim, usually sporting alternative colors and designs. Rappers have made this style huge, and many younger players on the field wear their brims straight. The antithesis of the Franchise, flat-brims are what’s in now.

As you’d expect, Lids has had epic sales increases for its on-field replicas and flat-brims. In 2005, the stores sold nearly 50 percent more flat-brims than the year before and seen jumps of almost 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in the past two years. In 2007, when the on-field replicas became available in a new "performance polyester," Lids sold 88 percent more of them than the year before. By contrast, Lids’ leaguewide Franchise sales since 2004 have dropped each year by an average of 12 percent.

Still, Franchise hats remain far and away the most popular with Red Sox fans. Pettit says that at his store, the cotton models outsell authentic 59Fiftys by six-to-one and other flat-brims by more than 10-to-1. Twins’ 2008 worldwide Red Sox Franchise production exceeded that of any other year in the company’s history. It boggles the mind that one group of fans, spread across the world, would remain so loyal to a hat model everyone else has started to leave behind.

And yet it makes sense: The Franchise hat, thought up by two Sox fans from the suburbs, tested on local college kids, shaped by local companies, embraced by Sox fans new and old, embodies all that is Boston, for good and bad. It has become in short order the symbol of both Boston’s favorite team and the city itself. Somehow, that seems unlikely to change.

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Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/03/more-than-just-a-hat/