Sometimes you write off the top of your head.
This one is about hats.
Every generation is shaped by its hats. First thing kids do now
when they shop for a new hat is try it on backward, and then
they bend the bill into a croquet wicket. This isn't at all what
we did with our new caps back in the 1960s. First thing we did
was put our favorite player's baseball card in the front to push
the crown up nice and high. Mine always had Lou Brock.
You can mark the passages in your life by what happens to your
hats. When you marry, the first thing your wife makes you take
off the wall is your hat collection. When you apply for the big
job, you throw your hat in the ring. When you retire, you hang up
your hat. Men are bonded to their hats. Nearly all the guys I
know have a lucky hat. None of them has a lucky tie clasp.
Just about anything you need to know about a sport can be
learned from its hats. If you were watching a baseball game on
TV and the only camera angle you could get was from the players'
eyes up, you would still know what was going on by the way they
wore their hats. If everybody in a dugout has his hat on
backward, for instance, you know that team is behind in a very
important game. If a pitcher is looking in steely-eyed for the
sign and has pulled his hat low over his eyebrows, you know that
the count is 3 and 2 and there are two outs. If a pitcher has
his hat tipped back in exasperation, you know he has just given
up a home run that will come down in Poughkeepsie.
Golf is all about hats. To acknowledge applause, golfers have
developed a hierarchy of hat moves that hasn't changed in 30
years. If a player pinches the brim of his hat to acknowledge
the clapping, he has hit a good shot. If he lifts his hat
slightly, he has hit a leaner from 150 yards. If he takes off
his hat and holds it high, he has slam-dunked a two-iron from
out of a frozen-lemonade cart. If he tosses his hat like a
Frisbee, he has just sunk a 30-footer to win the U.S. Open.
Hats are history: Willie Mays running out from under his; Casey
Stengel lifting his to release a bird; Jim Bouton pitching out
from under his but keeping a very good book under it. Without
his houndstooth hat, Bear Bryant would have been just some old
coot with a whistle. Without his fedora, Tom Landry is Fred
Mertz. Would the Buffalo Bills have won Super Bowl XXVI if
Thurman Thomas could've found his hat and been on the field for
the Bills' first two plays? What would Woody Hayes have stomped
on the Ohio State sideline if not his black baseball cap with
the block red O on the front?
In a hat Cal Ripken Jr. looks like he's 27 and dating pages 5
through 12 in the Victoria's Secret catalog. Without his hat he
looks 53 and on his way to assisted living. Flipping up the bill
of a hat has never looked good, however, even on a French
cyclist. Golfer Jesper Parnevik wears his hat like that, and it
cuts off the circulation to his brain.
Some people are defined by their hats. The white touring cap Ben
Hogan wore is now known as a Hogan cap. In hockey the hat trick
is nearly older than ice. It's said that Wayne Gretzky was so
good in the mid-1980s that Edmonton Oilers fans purposely wore
their worst headgear to games, fearing yet another Gretzky hat
trick. Hats are so much a part of sport that not wearing one can
be a trademark. Arnold Palmer became known for rarely donning
one, although his finest moment was flinging his visor into the
crowd after winning the 1960 U.S. Open. (Anyone who gets rid of
a golf visor is O.K. by me.) Craig MacTavish is known mainly as
the last man in hockey not to wear a hat on the ice.
Remember the old NBA? It was mostly about hats. The two greatest
days in an NBA player's life were the ones he had a hat on: the
day he was drafted, and the day someone came up from behind and
slapped a very ugly hat--heavily logoed and with the tags still
attached--onto his head. That meant he'd won a championship.
By the way, for the Super Bowl, the Final Four and Game 7 of any
championship series, manufacturers must prepare two sets of those
hideous lids for distribution immediately after the title game.
Usually the losing team's hats are destroyed, but in the past
they were occasionally given to the homeless.
Homeless Guy No. 1: "Hey, cool Bills-World Champions hat."
Homeless Guy No. 2: "Thanks. I like your Knicks Rule hat, too."
We don't get hathead. We are hatheads. I just counted. I have 78.
I am taking them all with me when I am buried.
It's my wife's idea.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA [Rick Reilly]
Without his houndstooth hat, Bear Bryant would have been just
some old coot with a whistle.