It really began my senior year of high school. I needed a cap to advertise where I was going to college. I bought a white circle-pattern Vanderbilt cap by The Game, which was the standard for hats at the time…and promptly flung it out of sight in the closet when things didn’t quite work out that way. For years afterward, the quest for a decent Birmingham-Southern cap would vex me to no end, especially given the shitty bookstore options for an NAIA institution. But that was the era in which I discovered sports, and it didn’t take long before I was accumulating headgear for every and any team I could claim the slightest interest in or affiliation with. Alabama. The Braves. The Chargers. The Padres. The Redskins. And then as the expansion hit, I started buying stuff that I just wanted, like that teal Marlins hat. (What? It matched my Saturn.)
Then I washed out of grad school (after three years of piling up even more hats) and suddenly I was living and working in DC where a hat was not really a viable thing – partly because I didn’t have the hair to come to work and take one off, and partly because it was just hotter than Hell too often. I’m sure I still had a few, and I did famously buy a Cal hat in black-on-black after a fateful wedding in Santa Cruz in 2000, but I don’t recall routinely wearing anything other than a Boston Red Sox batting-practice hat for strategic softball purposes – which in turn was replaced by a San Francisco Giants batting-practice hat in spring of 2002. Even after I cut my hair down to nothing at the end of 2005, you still have to go almost to mid-2009 in my photo album on my iPhone before you see me routinely wearing a ball cap on a routine basis.
The accumulation in recent years was largely driven by Vanderbilt, and the constant quest for the Best Possible Vanderbilt Hat (a quest which was only satiated when Ebbets Field Flannels brought out their throwback wool flannel Vandy cap, which I bought directly I found out about it). In addition to all the official Vanderbilt caps, there were Vanderbilt-adjacent caps, mostly of teams with VandyBoys on them (there is a black and gold A’s hat and a black and gold Braves hat, for instance) and a steady buildup of lids for the Giants (SF and SJ), Cal, the Warriors, and the like. There were a couple or three Nats hats over the years, as I tried to find a way to keep a hand in with the District without perpetuating the merchandising of an unsavory nickname or enriching the worst owner in sports. There was a Barons hat or two, as I tried to maintain a connection with my past.
And then there was a pandemic, and things got a little out of hand.
Suddenly, I had two or three hats for every team. I looked up and I had bought a San Diego Padres hat that was, if anything, an artifact of a life not chosen. I had three or four Barons hats, trying to pick something that seemed like an appropriate match for the connection I now had with my birth city. I had a hat for every occasion with the Giants: the 4th of July cap, the Pride cap, the St Paddy’s cap. I had two or three of the plain gray Philadelphia/Oakland A’s hats. I had the New Hampshire Fisher Cats lid with the leering top-hatted donkey on it, and the Louisville Bats cap with the cheerful mint julep on it. And on top of all that, now there’s the charcoal-gray Kangol flat cap for cold weather, because…
Well, let’s look at the because of why I’m wearing some of these things in the current rotation.
The Kangol is only really suitable for cold weather, but my father had one (which I also have) and I never found it until years after he was gone. Mine is darker and made in the US rather than the UK, but it’s very suitable for the times and places you need a hat to take off when you go inside.
There’s a Birmingham Black Barons cap that I ordered from the stadium in Alabama. Flex-fit, little more snug than I’m used to, Willie Mays’ first team and the only major league ball team in the history of Birmingham. The sort of thing that lets people know you aren’t the wrong sort of 50 year old white guy with a goatee, Oakleys and a Southern accent. And by people, I mostly mean me.
The San Jose Churros hat has been alternated with the San Jose Beer Batter hat. Both have more orange than I’d like, but they are both relevant to the nearest professional team, and to aspects of that team with which I am well familiar (and which speak to the local connection and traditions more than a block SJ does).
Lately, the current hat is an XXL fitted New York Giants replica, which is the pro hat Willie Mays wore between the Black Barons and San Francisco. It feels as old and out of place as a Brooklyn Dodgers hat, a reference to an era when the Giants were a glamour team in New York that counted Frank Sinatra and Tallulah Bankhead as fans, a team that had Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell in the age between McGraw and Mays. It reflects the team I’ve settled on as my major league team, while still reflecting a certain East Coast loyalty and sensibility which I will probably never shake. Now if only I could do something about the damned orange…
Which brings up another point. There isn’t really a Vanderbilt hat in the rotation at the moment. I don’t exactly know why that is, especially when they just had two pitchers drafted in the top ten and finished national runner-up again. Maybe it’s to do with the current nightmare unfolding around the SEC (of which more later), but it’s just as likely that once you take away the sidewalk fandom, it’s the school I washed out of after trying to launder my degree and which I primarily cling to now in order to hold it up against Shallow Alto the way you hold up a cross to a vampire. If that particular burden on my life were alleviated, would I still need Vanderbilt in my life as badly, as dissociated as I am from college football (like I say, of which) and as little connection as I feel with the alumni in town any longer?
Ultimately, I think the hat has become another one of those things where I end up with a dozen that are 80% right trying to find the one that’s 100% right. I need the hat that feels like it’s been missing from my head, and I don’t know what that is. And if I had to guess, that’s a symptom of something else. Of which, again, more later.