Living in the 90’s: the Backwards Baseball Cap

The baseball cap worn backwards became a popular fashion for head wear in the early 1990s, as it was a staple of the grunge ‘look’. By the mid 1990s it became hard to find a rock band that didn’t have a dude in it that wore his ball cap backwards. the Beastie Boys, Limp Bizkit, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M, Pearl Jam, Guns N Roses. Hell, even Neil Young jumped on the backwards cap bandwagon. Several pop culture pundits have sited Seattle Mariner baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. as starting the trend of wearing baseball caps backwards. Ohers argue that the backward’s baseball cap was first popularized by rap groups of the late 80s like Public Enemy, NWA, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. But in fact, the tradition started decades earlier.

The backward ball cap seems like an oxymoron – after all, the ball cap was specifically designed with a brim to shade sunlight from the wearers eyes. So why would anyone wear one backwards? Well, let’s look at a quick history of the baseball cap. Baseball caps were developed around 1860 when the New York Knickerbockers baseball team were wearing wool caps with a brim – these caps had evolved from straw hats they had been wearing for over a decade. No one was wearing them backwards at that time, but in 1878 Harvard third baseman Fred Thayer noticed that his team’s catcher was getting knicked by foul balls rather regularly. Worried that his catcher would get seriously injured, Thayer grabbed a mask from the fencing team and made some adjustments so his catcher could see better while wearing it. Within weeks Thayer was applying to patent his creation: the first safety-mask for baseball players. This is all documented, but what is not known is whether or not his catcher turned his baseball cap around while wearing his mask or not. Maybe the catcher just took his cap off.

Searching the archives of several baseball websites, you can see that ‘rally caps’ were popularized in the 1980s, in which major league and college ball players would wear their caps inside-out at crucial moments in a game with the hopes that it would turn their team’s luck around and start a rally. The 1985 Mets were especially known for this. Sometimes they would wear the caps inside out and backwards. But even further back than that, in the 1940s, players on the Detroit Tigers had turned their hats inside out – apparantly just for shits and giggle. There is no evidence that those Tigers wore their hats backwards however. In fact, the very earliest photographic evidence I came upon in which a ball player is seen with his hat turned around is on an iconic 1968 Topps baseball card of the legendary hall of Fame catcher from Okalahoma, Johnny Bench. It’s very doubtful that Bench was the first catcher to wear his hat backwards, but that card certainly made an impression on many of the young hipster dudes in their mid 20s who were wearing their baseball cap backwards some 20 to 25 years later. This included myself and my brother, Matt. Matt had been a catcher in little league, and had worn his baseball cap backwards during games. A few years later I was a bicycle deliver boy while in college and wore my ball cap backwards to prevent it from blowing off my head as I zipped around the city at high speeds. Certainly we were not alone. Everyone from delivery boys to movie stars to local politicians were wearing their ball caps backwards in the1990s. And who knows – maybe even a future President of the United States was doing it…

my brother matt, mid 1990s
barry obama
the author, late 1980s

Here are some more notable backward ballcap wearers of the 1990s: How many do you recognize?

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