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Fly Your Own Flag With A New Era Cap [Kicking Back With Jersey Joe]

Who’s your favorite sports team?  It’s often easy to tell just by looking up at someone’s head!  New Era caps are a big business and flying off the shelves again this holiday season.  While their popular with athletes, fans, and even gangs… this big time product has a long and proud history, and just signed a huge deal!

I admit it. I wear my Yankee cap every single day. With a long city walk to and from work, I’ve gotten so used to the comfort and fit that I often forget it’s even on my head. It really comes in handy on those cold, rainy nights and helps to block out the sun on those bright mornings. (And hopefully deflect some pigeon poop should I become an unlucky target.)

While, some simply wear the hats as fashion, I sport mine for the functionality as a huge fan of the team. Occasionally, I’ll sport my Pirates cap, (since I grew up in the country outside of Pittsburgh) and have been forced to wear a Mets cap a few times against my will. (No, you will not be hearing about that!)

Aside from being the official cap worn by Major League Baseball players, the caps have found their way into pop culture. Outside of baseball fans, the urban crowd quickly started to buy them after the demise of the Starter brand clothing company. Starter had produced sports team caps for years, but suddenly they were bankrupt and off the market. New Era was already a hot seller with MLB clubs and rap videos. They took the space left over on store shelves.

Caps for sale at the New Era flagship store in Buffalo, New York

The New Era cap company was founded in 1920 by Ehrhardt Koch, a German immigrant. Koch originally named the company as E. Koch Cap Company and set up shop in Buffalo, New York. For two decades, he had worked at another local hat making company, perfecting his craft, and wanted to start out on his own. He borrowed money from his aunt and used the skills he had learned as a teenager to open his own manufacturing company.

Koch decided that in order to make it big, he needed a plan. That plan was to sell his hats to major league baseball teams. He figured by landing a high profile order, he could showcase his products to a larger audience.

He changed the name to the New Era cap company and traveled from team to team, hoping to land a deal.

In the 1930’s, there were no exclusive marketing deals and he had to compete with other, more established, companies. In 1934, he landed a deal with the Cleveland Indians to produce both of their official, on field, home and away caps.

He did it! Koch even signed backdoor deals with his competitors to produce caps for them as well, which they would then market those under their own brand names.

While, New Era also premiered their first adjustable hat in the late 40’s, their primary focus was fitted hats worn by baseball teams. As the decades rolled on, more baseball clubs would sign on.

In 1954, the company unveiled a major redesign to their fitted cap and named it the “59Fifty” with the biggest change being cloth sweatbands introduced to replace the original leather bands. This version with only minor changes is the most popular cap on sale today and is also popularly known as a “fitted.” Its early nickname was “Brooklyn Style” in a nod to the original Brooklyn Dodgers.

The caps have not been limited to baseball. In 1969, New Era produced a special design that was worn by the crew of the Apollo 11 Recovery Splashdown Operation.  They would do the same for all later NASA recovery teams.

By the 1980’s, they company continued to grow and begin to design caps for Minor League Baseball, college, AAA, international baseball, tennis, and golf.  The 21st century would bring caps for NBA and NHL teams as well. Custom caps can also now be created on their website.

In 1986, New Era and their last major competitor, Sports Specialties, were granted the exclusive license to sell caps for Major League Baseball and were branded as “The Diamond Collection.”  They began a marketing campaign to “wear what the pros wear” and more caps flew off store shelves. They would beat out Sports Specialties to gain the exclusive license in 1993.

That same year, the caps would feature the MLB logo for the first time. It was originally placed on the side but was quickly moved to the center back. The first time I saw this during a live broadcast, I had no idea what that logo was until the cameras finally zoomed in for a close-up.

An updated Toronto Blue Jays 59Fifty New Era cap.

After nearly a century of relatively little change, the caps would undergo a large facelift in 2007. The original wool design was replaced with “performance polyester” and the original green, then grey, color underneath the brim would be changed to black in order to reduce glare.  The white sweatband inside was also changed to black to hide sweat stains. The cardboard brim was changed to a harder plastic allowing the cap to better hold its shape.

These changes were absolutely perfect and made for a much better fitting cap. The wool would shrink when it got wet. Now you can ever wear it into a pool, by getting it slightly wet, the caps actually start to fit better.

Their popularity also began to skyrocket as they began to appear in more and more hip hop videos. The new cool trend is to leave the gold label on the brim to prove that it is an official 59Fifty cap. That one, I can’t get behind. I don’t need to see the label or the barcode and price still attached.

The original designs stuck to strictly MLB team color and uniform standards. As the 90’s progressed, and their popularity grew, the caps began to be sold in a large array of colors and styles for the various teams. While a Yankee or Dodgers player would never wear a green cap on the field, they can be found in stores with the team’s logo, elevating the caps into a fashion and status symbol.

New Era authentic Yankees caps in alternate colors.

I myself, only own two variants. One a green Yankees St. Patrick’s day version that I also wear around the holidays, and a black and gold version that I received as a gift last year from FierceAndNerdy’s Joe Rusin. (Joe wants me to still support my hometown black and gold, so I think he was trying to make a sports statement). Either way, I love them both and do wear my black and gold Yankee cap watching Steelers games, sometimes to the chagrin of others.

The rise of the cap in urban areas also has some unfortunate ties to gang activity. The black Pittsburgh Pirates cap has been rumored to be popular with members of The Latin Kings.

New Era has become increasingly aware of this and removed a few designs from stores a few years ago after protests. The designs in question featured a red bandana, common with Bloods gang members, a blue and grey bandana associated with the Crypts gang, and a gold crown design associated with the Latin Kings.

Next year, the company will cash in on another major chapter in their history. They have just signed an exclusive deal with the National Football League and will begin to appear on the heads of players next season and will go on sale in stores. Reebok’s previous licensing agreement will expire in a few months.

Along with the 59Fifty, other versions of the cap include:

• 49Forty – fitted with a more casual, collegiate look

• 39Thirty – stretch fitted, used by MLB teams for spring training and batting practice

• 29Twenty – an adjustable cap

• 9Fifty Snapback – high crown cap with a snap enclosure on the back

On November 21, 2006, the company moved into a larger building, the former Federal Reserve building in downtown Buffalo.

Cleaning and caring for the caps has also become a great deal easier. Stores sell cap washers that allow you to place the hat in a plastic type cage enclosure and into washing machine or dish washer. The new 2007 design allows the cap to hold its shape allowing for more rugged wear and tear. Light stains can be removed with soap in the sink.

Last season’s baseball cap marketing campaign featuring Alec Baldwin as a Yankee fan and John Krasinski as a Red Sox fan was nothing short of brilliant. The series of commercials aired quite a bit, but if you haven’t seen one in a while and are looking for a laugh – check a few out…

Original founder Ehrhardt Koch passed away in 1954 during the early days of the company’s growth. His only son, Christopher (Harold) Koch, took over as CEO and New Era is still a family owned business today. They now produce over 50 million per year and the most popular team sold is the New York Yankees.

THE 411
Name: New Era caps
What: sports team caps produced by New Era and worn by sports athletes (mostly Major League baseball)
Headquarters: Buffalo, New York
Number of countries sold in: 40
Average cost: $35
Sizes: 4 ¼” to 8 ½”
Website: www.neweracap.com

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:  I love these caps and they honestly make a great gift for the holidays.  The 2007 redesign made them much more durable, neater, and longer lasting.  Their popularity and status will no doubt continue to rise.

Sometimes, it drives me a bit nuts when I see someone wearing one that’s not a true sports fan, but if they are at least familiar with the team, then I guess it’s OK.  They are becoming more of a fashion statement and that’s not going to change.

Even if you’re not someone who’s into wearing caps, they also make a great collectable.  Caps with authenticated player signatures can also fetch some big bucks online and at sports auctions.

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Image credits: Buffalo Pundit, Jay??,  and  Matthias Grund,