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