Old-time caps get top billing What's on top: Headgear from the national pastime is the height of fashion.

April 18, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

What's Chuck Bernstein, confessed clothes klutz, doing on the style page of this newspaper?

That's what he wants to know.

"You're joking," Mr. Bernstein, a Baltimore lawyer, says when advised that he is being questioned for a story about clothing trends. "The fashion police have a summons out for me every day of my life."

He may not be Baltimore's hippest dresser. But when it comes to one offbeat fashion accessory, he's positively cutting edge.

It's his ball cap.

Mr. Bernstein's is an eye catcher -- a 1944 International League Orioles cap, notable for its bright orange piping and perched bird.

He says he wears the replica cap -- identical to the ones worn by real Orioles of that era -- because it fits, feels good and conjures up memories from his youth.

"I love caps dealing with all facets of Baltimore baseball," says Mr. Bernstein, who also owns ball caps from two other teams that played in the city.

He's in good company. A growing number of fans and nonfans are augmenting their wardrobes with something a little different -- ball caps of long-departed and often obscure baseball clubs.

A handful of companies makes the replica caps. American Needle Co., an Illinois-based company, produces 135 models once worn by major league teams. The caps, which sell for $18 to $20, have to be five years out of "on-field exposure" to join the company's lineup, says an American Needle spokesman.

Another company, Cooperstown Ball Cap Co., has elevated cap-making to an art form. Its catalog offers a dizzying 1,500 models, including umpires' caps and hats once worn by members of inmate baseball teams at the famed federal penitentiary Sing Sing. The authentic-looking, custom-made caps sell by mail for $44, plus handling charges.

Cooperstown Ball Cap's founder and chief visionary is William Arlt, a former vintage clothing dealer who started making old-time ball caps about a decade ago. Then, he was producing a dozen or so models, standards like the 1951 New York Giants and the 1936 Washington Senators, a cap FDR might have donned when dropping by the ballpark after work.

Now, Mr. Arlt is the commissioner of vintage ball caps and their most passionate spokesman.

"Caps are extremely functional -- the best piece of headgear you can own," he says. "You just jam it in your pocket and throw it on. It's an umbrella and pair of sunglasses, except it doesn't break like sunglasses and it isn't big and bulky like an umbrella."

Mr. Arlt's caps are more portable than most. They're made of fine quality wool, have a leather headband and fit snugly to the wearer's head, just like the cap Babe Ruth wore 60 years ago.

The bills are also authentic -- they'll fold up in a hip pocket and snap back, though caps of teams early in the century aren't standouts for blocking the sun. It's as if somebody took shearing scissors and snipped off six inches, another authentic touch.

Most of the cap designs are culled from the colors and logos of real major- and minor-league teams, many of which passed to the baseball graveyard decades ago.

But a sizable number are drawn from other, unexpected sources. For instance, a page in Mr. Arlt's catalog is devoted to the caps of old company teams, a throwback to the days when oil refineries and steel mills hired ballplayers to work a few hours in their plants, then defend their employers' honor in contests on the baseball diamond.

Working from old photographs and other sources, Mr. Arlt faithfully reproduces caps from these teams, including such favorites as the Casa Grande Cotton Kings and Peoria Caterpillars, whose hat shows a furry worm slinking through a red, block "P." The ball caps are the perfect conversation starters, or a way to guarantee you'll be noticed at the next condo association meeting.

Jim Stringwell, a spokesman for American Needle, says his company relies mostly on true baseball fans.

"People used to buy a cap because of the color, as a fashion statement," says Mr. Stringwell. "Now it's more for the serious fan."

Mr. Arlt says his customers' motivations vary greatly. Some buy their caps to connect with a particular team or era. Others simply want to show off.

"Once, I got a call from a guy who absolutely insisted on having the hat by the weekend," Mr. Arlt recalls. "He called six times, checking, making sure it was coming. The last time he called, he told me he thought he could pick up girls in it. That explained his rush."

Not all customers are so calculating. Dan Zipper, a University of Baltimore student and part-time busboy at a Mexican restaurant in Canton, purchased his circa 1940s New York Giants cap from Cooperstown Ball Cap, he says, simply because he liked the look.

"It's cool," he says. "I wear it around, if I'm going out running, everywhere but to work. You have your hands in some pretty disgusting stuff when you're a busboy, and I want the hat in good shape."

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