On a winter day in 1982, vintage-clothing dealer William Arlt strolled into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. He walked out with a new trade. It took but a single glimpse of Walter (Big Train) Johnson's old blue and gray Washington Senators cap for Arlt to decide he wanted to become hatter to the Stars—that's the 1939 Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. Or maybe he would reproduce the caps of Johnson's 1926 Senators, or of any other pre-'50s baseball team with distinctive headwear.
Arlt, 44, went back to New York City, told his associates in the rag trade that he was on the lookout for old wool caps so that he could study the stitching and construction techniques in order to make his reproductions as authentic as possible. Soon he was turning out the white and red headgear worn by the 1908 Boston Pilgrims, the blue hat with white piping favored by Cleveland's baseball team in 1919 and the gray cap with black G of the 1929 Homestead Grays. Arlt's friends loved the caps, loved them to the extent that in 1985 he was able to close up his workshop in Manhattan in anticipation of moving to a 50-acre farm nine miles outside Cooperstown the following year.
Today, in the old stone cheese house behind his home, he can be found surrounded by piles of flannel, boxes of metal buttons, four sewing machines and lots of thread and sharp needles. Arlt sews old-fashioned baseball caps full-time. Last year, he made 500 of them, and those dated-looking lids have become as coveted by the stylish as a wristwatch from the U.S.S.R.
"When you are thinking about baseball caps as part of a wardrobe, it is best if you can rid yourself of the burden of rooting for one team," says Arlt. "It's best to pick a cap that goes with a serviceable overcoat inasmuch as it can be crushed into a pocket, then plucked out to keep the rain fashionably at bay." Right. And boardroom Beau Brummells wear red ties because they don't show ketchup stains.
Arlt came to old caps circuitously. After playing baseball—"I was always getting struck out"—and studying philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan, he found entry-level jobs in both professions to be at a premium. Eventually, he turned to music, and through the '70s he worked as a recording engineer with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Eric Clapton. In his spare time he served as a writer, singer and producer of his own underground recordings—with a little help from his friends: Melissa Manchester, Holly Woodlawn and members of the New York Philharmonic. In time, however, he says, "the underground disappeared, so I turned to overcoats."
Arlt advertises his baseball caps only through word of mouth, but such is the attraction of the old-time hats that he often runs short of the nifty baseball card-sized drawings that he sends out to those who request information on a specific team's headgear (he does require $1 for postage). But the catalog cards are only a teaser; Arlt will make any cap on special order, so long as it does not conflict with Major League Baseball's licensing laws. At the moment he is hunting for a cotton fabric with the texture of old pillowcase ticking in order to fill a request for an 1860 Brooklyn Excelsiors cap.
One thing that Arlt doesn't relish is a hurry-up bulk order. "Of course, big orders pay the rent better," he says. "But I like to have the time to make a proper 1910 St. Louis Browns cap, which, with its eight panels, two-fabric bill and two-tone fleur-de-lis, takes me five days to finish. Bulk orders are boring."
Nevertheless, things around the cheese house can get pretty hectic, and when that happens Arlt's recourse is either to take some swats at the punching bag he has hung from the ceiling or to pitch a few innings for, appropriately, the Cooperstown Leatherstocking Base Ball Club, an 1858 Massachusetts rules town-ball team. "I'm known as Old Clothes, and I'm the greatest town-ball thrower of the 20th century," says Arlt.
Another recent distraction was the birth eight months ago of a son to Arlt and his wife, Cosby Gibson. "His name is Whit, but we call him New Clothes," says the proud father. "I'm teaching him the curveball and designing him a cap." If you're interested in some new clothes for your head, write Old Clothes at the Cooperstown Ball Cap Company, Box 1003, Cooperstown, N.Y. 13326. All caps are $34 (plus $2.90 postage).