New Era keeps players' heads, company's hearts in game


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Jun 22, 2023

New Era keeps players' heads, company's hearts in game

BUFFALO — New Era CEO Chris Koch keeps an original New Yorker cartoon on his

BUFFALO — New Era CEO Chris Koch keeps an original New Yorker cartoon on his office wall amid a sea of memorabilia worthy of a sports museum. The simple line drawing shows a man at a bar wearing a particularly familiar baseball cap. "Actually, I’m not a New York Yankees fan," the man tells a fellow drinker. "I’m a New York Yankees cap fan."

Koch is both. He loves the Yankees and runs the company that makes their caps — not to mention the caps of every other team in the major and minor leagues. Koch finds himself in an unusual position as this postseason begins. He estimates that a World Series title won by the Chicago Cubs would mean selling roughly 1 million championship caps. Does that make him a Cubs fan?

"Oh, it does this year," Koch says with a mirthful laugh. The Cubbies famously last won the World Series in 1908. If they should win one now — well, talk about a new era.

"I think the opportunity we have with the Cubs is probably triple to quadruple a normal postseason," says Paul McAdam, New Era's executive vice president, North America. Add in the custom versions that would come out at Christmas and again in the spring and Koch figures all that pent-up demand could approach 3 million celebratory Cubs caps.

All this makes for busy times at New Era Cap Co. When the baseball playoffs begin Tuesday, players will be wearing new on-field caps that include a logo on the right side indicating the postseason. That means ramped-up production at the company's facility in Derby, 18 miles south of global headquarters in Buffalo. And wouldn't New Era caps be made in a place that sounds like a bowler hat?

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Given that the Cubs, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers all use a similar blue, New Era will need a lot of that shade of fabric this postseason. "Depending on the clubs" that advance, Koch says, "it’ll be upwards of a half-million yards."

That postseason logo, in shiny liquid chrome, is easy enough to apply when the caps can be produced in the shop, as almost all of them are. It's much tougher when players insist on wearing one cap all year. New Era's Dave Aichinger crisscrosses the country at season's end to accommodate a handful of such special cases.

"Not an easy thing to do from a logistical standpoint," Koch says, "but he figures it out every year."

Aichinger travels with a portable version of a heat-sealing machine — set at 325 degrees, applied for 13 seconds — that affixes the liquid chrome logo. (Best to keep that thingamajig away from the left arm of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, one of the one-cap wonders.) New Era's Robin Hahn scoured Macy's for luggage that the 25-pound machine would fit in.

Hahn, senior logistics integration manager, has 30 years with the company. Rusty Hurst, facility manager in Derby, says it's common for New Era employees to work 30, 35, 40 years. "If we had high turnover, we’d be in trouble," he says. "This is a skilled trade with a very manual process."

He's talking about the 22 steps — from cutting to packing — that it takes to make the iconic 59Fifty model, including embroidered team logo upfront and New Era flag on the left side. This postseason, that flag will be on major-league caps for the first time, and it will continue with 2017's regular season.

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"It was the one item on the field of play that didn't have a brand on it," Koch says. "We’re really excited."

Or, as Hurst puts it: "Nike always had their swoosh. Now we’re joining the big boys."

Spools of yarn in blues and greens and yellows and reds greet you as you enter a huge room at the rear of the Derby facility. It looks like Muppets are made here.

It's actually where team logos are embroidered. The machines are mesmerizing as they punch out their patterns. Each aborning emblem becomes more and more recognizable with every rat-a-tat strike. The Miami Marlins logo requires the most stitches (11,630) and the Pittsburgh Pirates the fewest (1,876).

Row after row of production operators sew the front and back panels together, or apply eight rows of stitches to the visor, or stitch around the pre-punched eyelets, or apply the button like a cherry on top, and so on around dozens of work stations at the 150,000-square foot plant. More than 200 workers stitch and sew and tape until a 59Fifty cap appears. That's the kind the players wear — and fans buy.

The championship caps are the kind you see players wearing just after a World Series is won. New Era produced them for the first time in 1990: roughly 1,000 caps for Cincinnati Reds players and management plus a local sporting goods store. (Hurst, a Reds fan, started at New Era a year later. "Story of my life," he says.)

These days the company produces championship caps in the tens of thousands while leaving a blank circular spot upfront where the winning logo can be placed at the last moment.

Production operator Lisa Camus, with 29 years at New Era, isn't much of a baseball fan. She watches games, if at all, to see the caps, not the baseball. "They’re made here," she says. "I’m always proud to see them."

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That sort of hometown ardor is found in a newspaper clipping that New Era cites as the first known article on its ball caps. Courier-Express columnist Dick Hirsch wrote: "So next time you see Mickey Mantle or some other young giant stroll to the plate, remember one thing: His heart may be in New York, but his head is in a bit of Buffalo."

That was published in 1959. Koch, 56, was born a year later.

"I love Buffalo," he says. "I’m a Buffalonian, tried and true. We have 17 offices around the world, but this is home and always will be."

Koch's great-grandfather, German-born Ehrhardt Koch, founded New Era in Buffalo in 1920. (Company historian Jim Wannemacher says the name was selected to reflect the Jazz Age optimism of a still-young 20th Century.) New Era made headwear such as Gatsby hats, fedoras and workmen's caps.

"As that fell out of fashion in the 1930s, my grandfather made a decision to move more toward baseball," Koch says, "on the theory that baseball is never going away."

Harold Koch, Ehrhardt's son, drove from Buffalo to Cleveland in the 1930s and came home with a handshake deal to make caps for the Indians. By the 1950s, New Era was also making caps for the Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers and Detroit Tigers, plus several other teams under so-called private-labeling deals. By the 1960s, the company had half of the big-league clubs. And by the 1990s it had all of them, thanks to an MLB exclusive licensing deal.

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Today New Era has more than 500 licensing deals worldwide, including the NFL, NBA and NHL. But baseball caps somehow carry more cachet, simply because they are an essential part of the uniform on the field. They’ve even earned a place as part of the American uniform — the common man's crown, as Troy Patterson put it in the New York Times Magazine.

"The cap is not a fashion item," he wrote, "but something larger and more primal: the headpiece of the American folk costume."

New Era's Buffalo headquarters is maybe a mile from Lake Erie. The Derby plant is roughly two miles inland. Harold Koch drove along the lake on that momentous road trip to Cleveland in the 1930s. And the living waters of that great lake is what drew a certain shipping magnate to Buffalo often in the 1960s and 1970s.

His name was George Steinbrenner and he bought the Yankees in 1973. David Koch, Harold's son, heard Steinbrenner was in town some time later and decided to seek him out. The story goes, according to Wannemacher, the company historian, that Koch scuffed around a string of Buffalo bars until at last he found the new owner. They shared some drinks and some conversation, but the Yankees were using another cap manufacturer at the time. Several years later, when that company couldn't handle a last-minute playoff order, Steinbrenner called on New Era. David himself drove the caps nearly 400 miles from Buffalo to Yankee Stadium.

For four generations of Koch fathers and sons — from Ehrhardt to Harold and David to Chris — that's the business model: If it's good enough for the Yankees or the Indians, it's good enough for college, high school and Little League teams.

And so for the next several weeks New Era will be on high alert, sometimes making caps round the clock — as many as 100,000 in three or four days — and filling the last-minute orders, just like that one filled for the Yankees almost 40 years ago.

"There's a room downstairs in this building that is our operational situation room," Koch says. "As we get further into the postseason, it's manned 24 hours a day by people monitoring all the different orders coming in, where it's being made, how it's being shipped, pre-orders, allocations. It has become a science."

Filling orders is science. Creating caps is art. And, for the company founded a dozen years after the Cubs last won the World Series, old hat.