Baseball caps: The pop fly look

July 17, 1991|By Georgia Dullea | Georgia Dullea,N.Y. Times News Service

NEW YORK- With the second half of the baseball season under way, let us put on our thinking caps, with the bills worn frontward, backward or off to the side, rapper style.

Let us ponder why 7 out of 10 hats made in this country are baseball caps.

Why everyone from football and basketball coaches to movie stars and babies wear them. And why the trend shows no sign of peaking.

Baseball intellectuals will give you a metaphysical answer. But before talking about the cap, they must talk about the game.

For them, a baseball cap, any baseball cap, is a magical object invested with unspoken powers because of its link to the mythic activity called baseball.

Dr. Stuart Ewen, a professor of media studies at City University of New York, whose cap collection includes minor league teams like the Madison Muskies, is one such intellectual.

"Baseball as a game rejects the rule of the clock," he said. "There's a kind of loveable defiance about wearing a baseball cap. It's become common for straight-laced business people to put on baseball caps as a sign of knocking off, time away from work."

New York seems especially nuts about baseball caps this summer. Not just Mets and Yankees caps, but baseball caps for basketball and football teams.

Baseball caps that say Public Enemy, Smithsonian, U.S.S. Kennedy, Ninja Turtles and Abe Stark Senior Center. And baseball caps that say nothing at all. The cap itself is its own statement.

Baseball caps are the new T-shirts. You wear them to show allegiance to your team, school, town, rock band and fishing club. Or that of someone else.

Baseball caps are also the new teddy bears. Hospital gift shops stock them, and cancer patients, especially young ones, use them to hide the hair loss caused by chemotherapy. Toni Cabat, a social worker at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, tells of the boy who lived in a baseball cap.

"He opened the door one day and there were all the neighborhood kids in the same cap," she said. "He had a team."

Baseball caps are high fashion. They became street fashion when the uptown rap artists took the venerable symbol of youth and summer, worked it off to the side, to the back and literally turned it on its head.

Meanwhile, the downtown fashion crowd added the cap to their uniform of white T-shirts, cutoffs and sneakers.

Boutiques began selling caps with sequins and bugle beads. Street vendors hawked leather caps with fake logos of Chanel, Vuitton and Gucci for about $18.

This season the caps moved from home plate to fashion plate, walking down the runways of Seventh Avenue and Paris. At the Chanel Boutique in Manhattan, baseball caps of quilted black leather are $810.

If none of this seems to have much to do with professional sports, in a way it doesn't.

"Probably no more than 10 percent of the domestic baseball cap volume represents pro caps licensed by the NFL, NBA, NHL and the major- league ball clubs," said C. Leon Sherman of CLS Associates, a Denver company that is a consultant to the headwear industry.

Roughly 250 million to 300 million baseball caps were made in the United States last year, Sherman said, adding that imports from China, Taiwan and South Korea probably accounted for an equal number.

"Close to 50 percent of caps sold are premiums and promotions for everything from seed and feed companies to fast-food restaurants and amusement parks," he said. "You name it, they're wearing it."

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