- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pity the wool baseball cap. It didn’t stand a chance, utterly alone as it was, with vanquished woolen sportswear littering the playing fields all around it: football jerseys, hockey sweaters, ski jackets, golf pants and the like.

Each had long ago succumbed to a tide of man-made textiles boasting superlative stretchiness, stain resistance, insulation and water repellence — innovations that spawned revolutions in sports fashion and fabric terminology alike. (It’s doubtful Honus Wagner ever pondered the “breatheability” and “wicking” abilities of his famously rumpled lid.)

This was never a fair fight, really. How could simple old wool compete with fabrics named Gore-Tex or Lyrca, Coolmax or Kevlar?

So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone this winter when Major League Baseball quietly announced it was tossing the wool cap for good. New Era Cap Co., the Buffalo, N.Y.-based manufacturer of baseball’s signature vestment for decades, declared that a new polyester-blend model would debut on opening day.

Still, wool and baseball were interwoven for about 150 years, from the day the New York Knickerbockers switched from straw to merino until Oct. 27, when a summer’s toil could be traced in the salt-stained caps of the St. Louis Cardinals as they celebrated winning the World Series.

With stain-resistant polyester, those saline smudges will besmirch baseball no longer.

The switch went off with nothing close to the griping that accompanied the NBA’s ill-fated introduction of a microfiber basketball this season.

Perhaps that’s because New Era put its product through a two-year off-field testing period that included input from dozens of players. In fact, the cap was conceived, designed and implemented with a sole purpose — to perform better on the diamond, says John DeWaal, vice president of brand communications for New Era.

“It was something we determined a while ago: that we needed to keep up with what was going on in the sports apparel world,” Mr. DeWaal says. “We needed that kind of moisture management and performance in our caps.”

New Era and MLB argue that the new caps do a better job of wicking sweat from the brim and distributing it to the crown, where surface-area exposure evaporates it more quickly. The caps don’t shrink or stretch like wool; they retain their color and shape, resist stains and odor and ultimately last longer — or so the thinking goes.

In the strict context of on-field performance, it’s difficult to imagine players quibbling with any of these claims.

But considering the authentic baseball cap’s workaday role in the uniform of the modern American man — as a fashion statement, declaration of territorial loyalty, baldness camouflage, bad-hair-day remedy and occasional grooming substitute — it’s remarkable how little resistance New Era met when announcing what amounted to a sartorial sea change.

Chris Lind, assistant manager of the Lids store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., says his store, part of a national chain that sells only baseball caps, rolled out the polyester caps on March 30; he isn’t sure what he’ll do with his stock of the old woollies.

“Either they’re going to get discounted,” he says, “or be sent back to the warehouse.”

Though New Era will continue to make some of its “fashion” caps out of wool, the better part of its business springs from fans’ desire to don the exact same model — stitch for stitch — as their heroes on the diamond. From a business perspective, the immediate impact of the change may be felt only by New Era’s wool suppliers; the larger consequence for wool producers comes in the form of perception.

“It’s significant in the visibility that it’s had,” says Rita Samuelson, marketing director for the American Wool Council, a nonprofit association representing U.S. sheep ranchers. “It was one of the last places in sports where wool was used, and so many people are now hearing that wool is being replaced by high-performance fiber.

“But wool, to me, is a high-performance fiber, and a natural one. Wool naturally absorbs moisture, and it breathes. That’s why it’s performed so well over time.”

Miss Samuelson knows of at least one wool producer in Canada that may have to shutter its mill with the decreased demand. Also, the change has done little to help wool’s reputation as a scratchy, old-fashioned fiber that’s ill suited for our daily duds. It’s a shame, she says, because no matter how advanced man-made fibers become, there still are things wool fibers can do that plastic cannot, such as shrink and stretch to fit conditions.

Some civilians may have trouble getting used to that.

“Forming-wise, basically your only option is to bend the bill,” Mr. Lind says. “There’s no way to form the material like with wool,” which can be manipulated easily with steaming or repeat wearing.

There are a few other subtle changes in the new hats: The new caps have switched from a white band (which soils almost immediately) and light gray underbill to black in both places. The price has gone up, from $29 suggested retail to $32.

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