THE YANKEES BASEBALL CAP
How a simple sports accessory became a worldwide phenomenon.
This is the story of a sports accessory that has become a cult item of clothing that (almost) never goes out of fashion. But why do people all over the world wear the New York Yankees baseball cap?
THE PRIDE OF THE BRONX
MICHAEL RENDINO. I grew up in the Bronx, near the Throgs Neck Bridge over the East River. I learned when I was very young to be tough, to make it on my own, not to expect anything from other people. Being from the Bronx is my identity: it’s who I am, and supporting the Yankees is fundamental to that. We don’t have much, but we’ve got our team. When they win, we all win.
COUSIN BREWSKI. My dad and I didn’t talk much, but when the Yankees were playing, we’d sit together on the couch in the living room, watch TV and talk about strategy and players.
LUIS CASTILLO. My dad’s a Dominican immigrant. When he came to New York in the 1970s, he started watching baseball games, and right away he became a Yankees fan. I went along with it – it suited me fine. The Yankees were a prestigious club with a history and an aura.
JEROME CHARYN. The Yankees dominated American baseball for most of the 20th century. The trigger was the arrival of the star player Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1920. Other players followed in his footsteps, like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter. In the 1950s, a Broadway musical called Damn Yankees even said that the only way to beat the
Yankees was to hire the devil. The whole glorious era [from 1922 to 1978, the team won 22 World Series, the most prestigious title in American baseball] left a lasting impression on the United States. And it doesn’t matter that there were tougher times later on.
ANGELO BAQUE. When I was young, in the ’80s, the club wasn’t winning anything. The last big win was the 1978 World Series. The New York Mets, the other team in town, were way ahead. Since we lived in Queens, my whole family supported them. I was the only Yankees fan, so I was kind of on my own. When I was 13, I decided to go to a game with my best friend. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my mom. We bought our tickets and took the subway, from Lefferts Boulevard to midtown Manhattan, then another overhead line to the Bronx. We didn’t want to ride underground because we wanted to look at the graffiti.
M.R. Going to the games was an adventure in itself. We were always a bit nervous when we got to Yankee Stadium on River Avenue. My dad was very careful about where he parked his car. But once we got inside the stadium, that was it. The field, the tunnel, the noise. And then there were all those Yankee caps. Almost everyone at the stadium wore one.
J.C. Caps have always been an integral part of baseball culture and of the match kit. When he played for the Yankees, Babe Ruth wore
one, obviously, and Joe DiMaggio wore one, but it was Mickey Mantle who really popularized it. He was only 18 when he arrived in 1953 from Oklahoma. DiMaggio was from San Francisco, Babe Ruth from Baltimore. Mantle, on the other hand, was a country boy – he represented a different America. In the early ’50s, the games started to be widely broadcast on TV, and he built his fame that way. He became a household name. Since he always wore his Yankees cap, screwed onto his head with the visor folded, it became a star, too.
C.B. My uncle gave me my first cap when I was three. In those days, it wasn’t as easy as it is today to find one – you had to look all over New York.
L.C. My dad bought me my first cap when I was nine. I remember very clearly how much it cost: $19. I was so happy that day. The logo fascinated me. I learned much later that it was designed by a New York artist in the late 19th century [Louis B. Tiffany, in 1877] and was first used on a medal of honor struck for a policeman who was killed in the line of duty.
M.R. It was really impressive to see all those fans at the stadium with their Yankees caps on. It thrilled me as a kid.
ON THE STREETS
COREY PEGUES. I’ve always worn the cap, but in the ’80s, it took on a whole new dimension for me. I started doing business. I was part of a gang, the Supreme Team. For the dealers, wearing a Yankees cap was a statement – it was a sign that you belonged in New York. We used to buy them on Jamaica Avenue. I always had plenty of them because I only wore them two or three times before throwing them away. If there was a stain or a crease, that was it, done, in the trash.
ALIX BURGOS. All the dealers I used to see on the streets – on Sackman Street, in Brownsville, on the Brooklyn side – drove BMWs, Porsches and Mercedeses. And they wore Yankees caps.
C.P. The day I was arrested for assault, I was wearing a Yankees cap. Me and a friend had beaten up a guy. When I heard my buddy was arrested, I went to the police to try to get him out. Bad idea. The victim was there, too – he turned me in. The cops grabbed me and checked if I was armed. Worst of all, they took my cap away from me. They didn’t give it back until I got out.
A.BU. What you needed were gold chains and a Yankees cap. If you had that, you were good.
C.P. After doing a lot of stupid stuff, I became a cop in Queens. True story. I was in the narcotics unit, and I always wore my Yankees cap. We had our apartment, we’d keep watch on the dealers, and we’d get a radio call when something was happening. We’d ride around on bicycles and then stop and jump on the dealers, who had no idea what was going on because we looked like local guys in our baseball caps. People had never seen a policeman looking like that. They’d ask, “But are you really a cop?” When I became a captain, I started wearing suits, Calvin Klein and then Zegna. But I kept my Yankees cap. As captain, I was responsible for the 40 most violent subdivisions in the city. When I’d go into those neighborhoods, 99 percent Black, people would see me and say, “That’s Captain Pegues, the one who always wears a Yankees cap.” That’s how they knew me.
JEROME CHARYN, CULT WRITER FROM NEW YORK “IT’S MICKEY MANTLE, THE STAR OF THE TEAM, WHO TURNED THE YANKEES CAP INTO AN ICON AT THE START OF THE ’50s”
JAMES LILLIEFORS. For a long time, the Yankees cap was very much a New York thing, very street. But in 1996, it all changed, thanks to one man.
LAURENCE JOSLIN. That year, Spike Lee called us at New Era and said he wanted a red New York Yankees cap made for him. Apparently, he wanted a cap that would match a red down jacket he’d just bought. That was the first time we’d had a request like it. But we couldn’t do anything without the express agreement of the Yankees boss. He finally said yes, and we got to make the red Yankees cap.
J.L. It was sacrilege, but at the same time, it was really cool.
STEPHANIE KRAMER. At every game he attended at the time, Lee would appear on camera several times in his red cap. The next day, fans would routinely show up at New Era shops in their hometowns asking for colored caps. So, New Era renegotiated its license with the M.L.B. [Major League Baseball] allowing it to produce the caps in lots of different colors.
J.L. Chris Koch, the CEO of New Era, which makes all the caps for Major League Baseball, later said that it was a turning point: it gave the brand its street identity and changed how the world viewed baseball caps.
VANGELIS KOUNADIS. That’s when the trend started. Suddenly the Yankees baseball cap, a modest little New York sports accessory, became a must-have for a lot of people.
J.L. It wasn’t long before the Yankees cap entered the music world. I remember Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit started wearing a Yankees cap at gigs. Then, of course, hip-hop followed.
A.BU. The first rap video that comes to mind is Jay-Z’s Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up), released in 1999. He’s wearing a Yankees cap with a leather jacket – an Avirex, I think. In one verse, he says: “Hat cocked, can’t see his eyes, who could it be? With that new blue Yankee on, who but me?” And it’s true, you couldn’t see his eyes, but the cap made it clear it was him.
STEPHANIE KENNEDY. In “Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z even says, “I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” It’s crazy when you think about it.
A.BA. And Jay-Z was right. The reason the Yankees are so well known isn’t because of their championship wins – it’s because of him.
L.O. In the late ’90s, you saw caps absolutely everywhere. I remember we played the Boston Red Sox in ’99 in the playoffs. I remember these Boston fans wearing their club jerseys and Yankees caps at the same time – it was pretty nuts. A few months later, Bill Clinton, who was president at the time, came to visit the club with the Secret Service in tow. He met all the players. We gave him a cap, and he put it on. The president with the Yankees cap on: that was a powerful moment.
J.L. It was really around then that the whole phenomenon became global.
M.R. When I was 32, I went to Thailand to train for three weeks in a Thai boxing camp, my first big trip abroad. I’d hardly ever left the Bronx. When I got there, I couldn’t believe it – ev- eryone was wearing a Yankees cap. I had no idea how international it had become. When I had mine on, people would ask me, “Where are you from?” I’d answer proudly, “The Bronx.” Then they’d say, “Oh my God, you get to go to Yankee Stadium!”
STEPHANIE KENNEDY, WARDROBE MASTER FOR seinfeld “IN ‘EMPIRE STATE OF MIND,’ JAY-Z SINGS : ‘I MADE THE YANKEE HAT MORE FAMOUS THAN A YANKEE CAN.’ IT’S CRAZY WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT”
A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
SEFYU. We were watching at a distance, but we knew something was going on with the Yankees cap in the U.S. We understood that it was the headgear of choice for guys from the Bronx and rappers, and that it had a strong social significance. We all wanted to look like those guys.
GÉRARD BASTE. When I saw the cap arrive here, first of all it made me think of the character Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He wore a Yankees cap, too, but his was white. Obviously, you had to have the classic navy model. The guys wore it with a Chevignon down jacket and a Burberry scarf. Kangol berets were popular, too, but the Yankees cap was the favorite. People were snapping the visor in two to make a V shape. You’d see it in graffiti magazines as a way of appropriating the object. I don’t know if it was like that in other countries, but in France, it was really important to break it. You even had little run-ins with guys saying, “No, you can’t wear it like that” and who’d break your visor for you.
S. That cap’s a masterpiece – you had to pimp it up. Everyone had a thing about the hologram sticker on the visor when you bought it. We all kept it because taking it off meant the cap was nearer the end of its life.
G.B. I had my hologram period, too. At the time, the idea was really to keep the cap new for as long as possible. At one point, some of my friends even bought this ugly cap-shaped hat box to put five or six of them in when they traveled. Then there was the little cleaning kit with a small brush: some people went for that, too.
L.J. In France, sales started to take off in the late 1990s. Today, we’re selling millions of caps every year in Europe. The top three countries are Germany, France and the U.K., in that order. Spain and Scandinavia aren’t far behind. But it sells right around the globe. The Yankees cap is everywhere.
C.B. In Japan, a lot of people wear the Yankees cap because the team was one of the first to recruit a Japanese player, Hideki Irabu. He joined the roster in 1997, and Japan developed a consuming passion for the team. Suddenly, all our games were shown on TV there – even the games that were on at four in the morning because of the time difference. He was very, very popular.
CARLOS LAZO. If you go out in Quito at night and hang around Plaza Foch, you’re bound to come across young people wearing Yankees caps. Particularly the rap fans known as coperos, who wear the Yankees cap with a flat visor.
VERB BHENGU. It’s everywhere in South Africa, too, but they’re mostly counterfeits. In the big cities, it’s really easy to buy them on the roadside. The New Era logo is usually missing from the side. And sometimes the Yankees logo is much too big.
TOJONIAINA RARIVOSON. When I see a Yankees cap in Madagascar, I’m always skeptical. The real New Era ones are quite rare here. You see much more of the Chinese counterfeit ones, and they’re actually often quite well made. The sticker on the visor is identical, for example. You really have to look closely to see that it’s fake.
C.L. It’s the same in Quito – we have tons of fakes. In the historic center, at Ipiales Market, you can get a fake Yankees cap for between $5 and $8, while the price of a real cap here is usually around $40.
ROBERT GLOS. A few years ago, the counterfeit market was booming in the Czech Republic. At the time, we even started a YouTube channel called Burn The Fakes to compare real
New Era caps with the fake products. But we got a lot of pretty aggressive messages saying, “Let people wear what they want – your hats are really expensive.”
L.J. We have problems with counterfeits. If you go to the Champs-Elysées in Paris, Oxford Street in London or anywhere else, you’re always going to come across vendors selling Yankees caps or headgear from other teams. We do what we can to inform the authorities when it happens and when we know about it. But is this a huge problem for us? No. It doesn’t hinder our growth.
R.G. New Era is the only official manufacturer of M.L.B. baseball caps. We work only with them, obviously. Mass production of caps in the U.S. stopped in June 2019. [That’s when the historic factory in Derby, New York, closed down. Since the M.L.B. requires pro players to wear U.S.-made caps on the field, New Era now uses subcontractors in the town of Hialeah, Florida, to produce these caps, which are not available to the general public, from imported materials.] The caps are now made in Asia – in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh – as well as in Haiti. We order from a local distributor who deals with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
C.L. We order from New Era Ecuador, which has been around for two years. The caps arrive in Panama after being shipped by boat from Asia, which is the cheapest way. We used to only get certain models from the U.S., but that’s finished now.
L.J. Over the years, we’ve been eager to develop different designs. Of course, we still produce the iconic fitted 59FIFTY with a flat visor. But there’s also the 39THIRTY, with a curved visor. And the 9FORTY, which is adjustable. By offering a variety of designs like this, we can appeal to the biggest audience.
YANKEES OR NEW YORK?
C.P. I never stopped wearing Yankees caps. I have two shelves full at home – I just have to lower the zipper to pick one. There must be 40 or 50 on each shelf, all Yankees. The truth is, I don’t go anywhere without one. Even when it rains.
A.BU. I think I have about 200. They all bring back memories. I’ve done everything with a Yankees cap on my head. I’ve kissed a girl wearing that cap. I’ve got into arguments, been in fights with it on my head. I’ve been drunk and smoked a joint.
M.R. I’m part of the older generation, so I like my caps fitted and a bit worn. They suit me better that way. I don’t really like the way the young people wear them, with the flat visor. They leave the sticker on – I hate that.
A.BU. Sometimes, I pull down the visor to look mysterious. I pull a hood over it, and you can’t tell who I am. Other times, I put on a but
COREY PEGUES, FORMER N.Y.P.D. OFFICER “I REMEMBER GOING TO MY BEST BUDDY’S BIRTHDAY PARTY ONCE WEARING A BLUE AND WHITE BOSTON RED SOX JERSEY AND A YANKEES CAP. EVERYONE WAS LAUGHING AT ME.”
ton-down polo shirt and a cap and spend my day dressed like that.
V.B. I wear it as if it were my crown. [Laughs]
A.BU. I’ve got two friends, Brandon and Eric, who used to have curly hair. They’d brush it, put a do-rag on to hold it in place and put their Yankees caps on top. That was the style in the early 2000s: gangster, street and stylish.
G.B. With the big New Era caps and those flat visors, it seems to have become very complicated. Today’s style is Atlanta, very tight clothes, short chains, designer names everywhere. But we’ll come back to it. It always comes back round.
A.BU. I reckon there are some things that never go out of style, never become outdated. The Yankees cap with a pair of white Air Force 1s, for example. The Yankees cap is great. So are Nike Air Force 1s. But the two together: that’s pure magic. Honestly, that cap goes with everything. It’s just like a white T-shirt.
C.P. I’m not sure if it’s really just another piece of clothing. I remember going to my best buddy’s birthday party once wearing a blue and white Boston Red Sox jersey and a Yankees cap. Everyone was laughing at me. I tried to explain that it was about the look. With blue trousers and a pair of white Pumas, it worked really well.
G.B. The same thing happened to me, but the other way around. I was wearing a Yankees T-shirt and a Boston Red Sox cap – I always have Boston caps because of the “B,” which, to me, stands for “Baste.” I came across some American tourists in the streets of Paris, and they looked at me, dumbfounded: “Boston and New York, really?” To them, it made no sense. But from a French perspective, it was just a cool outfit.
L.J. That’s actually an interesting question: do people around the world who buy the cap know it’s a Yankees cap, from the baseball team, or do they just think it represents New York City?
C.L. In Quito, I really don’t think the young people who wear it know who the Yankees are.
J.L. It doesn’t really matter. This cap is imbued with the mystique of New York City. It’s like an embodiment of the song “New York, New York” [most famously sung by Frank Sinatra]. This cap is an incredibly potent symbol.
A.BA. Exactly like the “I Heart New York” T-shirt. Only slightly cooler.