The best thing to happen to a Buffalo hat maker was a relationship with Cleveland and baseball’s Cleveland Indians. That relationship eventually gave what is now New Era a way into professional baseball with their new hat style and has helped cement the brand, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, as the leader in on-field caps, not just in Major League Baseball, but in all of baseball.
Ehrhardt Koch started the brand in 1920 as a fashion or everyday men’s headwear maker. But, at that time, there were about 15 others like him in Buffalo alone and he needed a new revenue base. Koch’s son, Harold, felt baseball was the next big thing. So, Harold created his own wool Brooklyn cap — a six-panel fitted cap with a longer visor than popular in the day — and had enough savvy to sell it to teams. The first major team to sign on was the Cleveland Indians in 1934, wearing both a home and road New Era design. “We went to the next team and then the next one and the next one,” says Jim Wannemacher, New Era brand historian. “Harold used to say that once we got a team, we never lost them.”
As New Era’s direct ties to teams grew, the indirect ones grew too, taking orders from Spalding, Wilson and others to make hats for them under their label. “Unknowingly, we were doing a lot of baseball hats over the years. As it grew and grew, we were building our manufacturing structure on a big scale,” Wannemacher said. So, when MLB decided to nail down one provider, New Era was there with most of the MLB teams already on board and the history and manufacturing to back it.
“Everything they did with us was always looking at themselves as a license company first,” said Denis Nolan, MLB vice president consumer product/retail marketing. “Every agreement was what is best for MLB and the clubs and if we start there and get that right, then we worry about what’s right for the retailer. It worked out for New Era. We have seen that with their incredible growth.”
Getting to the agreement with MLB to be the official on-field cap provider in the 1990s took decades of work from New Era, but now the brand creates nearly a dozen official on-field Authentic Collection caps each season with the combination of Spring Training, special event caps, postseason and a mixture of specialty everyday caps for each team. It all comes as part of the business model to show the New Era versatility, customization and, well, to keep MLB players themselves happy.
“We will do research in terms of trends, research from retail partners to see what sells through to player ambassadors to get feedback,” says Tony DeSimone, New Era vice president of licensed sports. While the main Authentic Collection caps are the most popular by far for the brand, the two biggest on-field special event sellers for New Era are the Fourth of July and Armed Forces events. Even still, smaller events, such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, hold down their own with a healthy demand for product.
Over the decades, the Yankees have easily proven the number-one selling cap in New Era history. The brand credits the success of the team, a relationship that started with the Yankees in the 1950s and the ubiquitous role the Yankees play in Americana culture. The number-two selling New Era cap is a constant ebb and flow, largely driven by who’s having the most on-field success. The Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox all generally hover near the top and lately the Astros have proven quite popular.
The hat itself hasn’t changed too much from the original Brooklyn style. In 1954, the 59FIFTY pattern was officially named and introduced, giving the original design some tweaks, most noticeably when changes to the front of the cap created additional structure. Wannemacher said New Era wanted to ensure the cap’s front logo was always facing forward, instead of sometimes falling in and facing up. New Era then sewed in horse-hair cloth in the front panel to ensure the front of the cap stood up and rendered the logo visible. The structure also gave teams a more uniform appearance.
Nolan said that when New Era started placing the silhouetted batter MLB logo on the back of the cap it helped the MLB brand itself, showing a consistent mark of an official licensed product and really giving the league more worldwide exposure.
The next big design tweak waited until 2007 when New Era took away some of the height of the front of the cap in the first step in making the hat more performance driven. Along with a more streamlined design, New Era released a new performance wool for the cap with moisture-wicking, cooling and stain resistance. The under visor was switched to black to reduce stress on the eyes. “All of these elements were added to the hat to make it more comfortable and make it more performance-ready for baseball,” Wannemacher said. “It was a massive undertaking and it was amazing we pulled it off.”
DeSimone said the improved performance has helped the brand’s diversity in selling. Whether for the on-field players or the traditional fan, having an improved product allows it to be more comfortable in all scenarios, a bonus feature for buying a cap. Still though, he knows the main reason fans buy a cap is to support either their team or their city. Whether buying a cap to match what’s worn on the field or because MLB caps have become synonymous with support of a city — the “B” for Boston, the “NY” for New York, the “LA” for Los Angeles or the “C” for Chicago, for example — New Era has been able to step beyond sports with its reach.
The baseball cap, easily the top-selling consumer product in sports, really started to take off from a fan favorite point of view in the early 1990s. From Spike Lee calling New Era’s owner to request Yankees caps in multiple colors to match his jacket for a trip to the World Series in Atlanta sparking a rush of consumer interest that led MLB to allow New Era to produce team caps in a variety of colors, to other celebrities and popular musicians donning the caps.
“It really changed our business overnight and almost doubled or tripled that in five years,” Wannemacher said. “It continues with our collaborations, our willingness to do almost anything on a hat and turn it around rather quickly.”
Nolan said that New Era has shown a natural evolution and grown in importance from a cultural lifestyle point of view, without losing its focus on serving as a license brand for the league, transcending different markets along the way. “Not a lot of brands have been able to do that, it is unique to New Era,” Nolan said. “When talking about partnerships and collaborations, with the league, clubs, artists and athletes, it is infectious, it really is. It is a constant evolution.”
New Era now sells 142 caps a minute globally and has nine core styles across its 385 worldwide flagship stores.
Moving forward, DeSimone said New Era is always brainstorming to see what the fans will want next, bringing in other parts of culture that might work on the field of play. “We always try to not only focus on the core baseball fans, but also bridge that gap between sports and lifestyles,” DeSimone said. A collaboration with musician Travis Scott recently blew up for the brand, showing the crossover appeal. “We have to look for those opportunities,” he said, knowing that New Era has the ability to prove popular in lifestyle, entertainment and music while still being tied to baseball. That’s why, as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary all year, New Era has plans to roll out collaborations and re-issues of classic caps and apparel. Expect collections in conjunction with Helmut Lang, Yohji Yamamoto, Levi’s, Havaianas, Daniel Arsham, Modernica, Casio and Pentatonic.
“New Era is looking for and listening to the marketplace of what artists are doing and what kids are looking for and what new team looks are coming,” Nolan said. “They are constantly evolving and having conversations across the board, more so than most companies. New Era is always on a constant push for new designs.”