It’s Much, Much More Than Just a Hat
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.
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.