The Sad and Rapid Decline of the Ball Cap
On getting older and how to cover your head
Blame my father. He was a ball cap guy. He had, and still has, an entire filing cabinet and three storage bins full of hats. The mesh feedlot and seed supplier caps that a farmer can’t help but accumulate. He kept them all.
And when he bought me my first ball cap—a cruel joke of a hat for any Cubs fan that reads “1984 Champions”—that collector gene kicked in. Over the next 13 years, I amassed a large collection of my own, which was fun, but as an adult you’re expected to eventually deal with these things.
So, while home over the 4th of July weekend, I did what I tend to do when I’m not sure what I want to do. Just archive everything.
I decided to photograph all of the 67 hats that survived my teenage years so I would have a personal record of 1990s athletic apparel design.
And what a terrible era it was.
When North Carolina center Brad Daugherty was selected with the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1986 NBA Draft, he received something no previous draft pick had received before—a hat. A pretty sharp hat, actually. Orange wool with ‘CLEVELAND’ in blue block lettering over ‘Cavaliers’ in script. This became the hat of the NBA Draft, used through 1995, and it was, ostensibly, a fashion hat.
Prior to that point, there wasn’t much variety out there for ball cap wearers. It was a functional part of a baseball uniform—wool, six- or eight-panels, a team logo or letter front and center—that few saw fit to alter. That made the first draft hats something unique. There was no logo. Just a name and a fancy font. It seems restrained now, but at the time this was a significant step.
And, of course, it wasn't enough. Run through the old NBA Draft clips on YouTube and you’ll see the same idea I noticed while documenting my own collection: “What if we expand the canvas?” When Derrick Coleman was selected with the first overall pick by the New Jersey Nets in 1990, his hat featured an NBA logo on the right side. Nothing major. It didn’t really detract from the hat, but it was a first step in the ugly and uncontrolled logo migration that was to come.
Two years later, Major League Baseball added its logo to the back of its on-field caps. By 1995, Glenn Robinson got his draft hat after being selected by the Milwaukee Bucks and it was still the same basic design as in 1986 but this one featured the NBA logo on the right and the team logo on the left. Limits? There were no limits any more.
This was the hat-collecting era I grew up in. That famous script? It eventually got relegated to the damn bill of a hat to make room for even more elements.The designs got bigger and uglier.Pinstripes, patchwork,piping, anything was possible and this terrible design strategy worked on me. It worked so well.
I have an off-and-on relationship with professional football. College is more my game, but a few years ago I decided to reconnect with my once beloved Chicago Bears. I planned to celebrate this rekindled relationship with a new Bears hat. Something simple. Navy blue with that famous wishbone-C.
The NFL was deep in a licensing deal with Reebok at the time. I went to the official online shop of the National Football League and scanned through probably 80 different hats. I didn’t want to wear any of them. My teenage self would’ve probably purchased most of them, but I’d grown up since then. Classic was in and edgy was out, which really meant that I was out.
Despite my long history with hats, I’m no longer the target demographic. We all come to that realization at some point, and for me it happened on NFL.com. I didn’t get a hat and this somehow actually curbed my interest in the Bears for a few more years.
But things could be changing. While creating this personal archive of the poor taste and buying decisions of my youth, I found a Bears hat I actually like. It’s black wool (because everything was black around 1992) and has ‘CHICAGO’ in orange block letters above ‘Bears’ in blue and orange script. It’s at least part of the reason that I can’t go to the local sporting goods store and pick up a ball cap anymore.
In that sense, it is the perfect hat.