The baseball cap seems innocuous enough. A brimmed hat emblazoned with a team logo for players to wear while on the field for protection from the sun. Simple. But over the past couple of decades, the baseball cap has become a lightning rod. Depending on the direction it is turned, or who wears it, the cap is a stand-in for the sport’s racially contentious past … and present. From legends such as Ken Griffey Jr. to newcomers such as Ronald Acuña, the baseball cap has been as divisive as a Subway Series.
When is a hat not a hat?
Acuña walked into an Atlanta Braves training camp interview on Feb. 15 and left having been asked to make a sartorial change.
The Venezuelan outfielder signed with the Braves in 2014 and honed his skills with various minor league teams, getting ready for the big leagues. He’s dominated, garnering comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. for his play, and his swagger. The buzz around him, and superior performance has led him to be named the top baseball prospect entering the 2018 season and has allowed him the leverage to turn down the Braves’ $30 million offer in the offseason. The Braves and the city of Atlanta are head over heels for Acuña and the possibility of what he can bring to the franchise when he gets called up from the Gwinnett Stripers minor league squad at some point this season.
But first, there was that training camp interview.
Braves manager Brian Snitker called Acuña in to address his cap. Acuña had been wearing his hat tilted to the side, and a little bit off of his head because his thick locs were making it impossible for the cap to fit perfectly. The style balked at tradition.
Tradition. Major League baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, Latin American athletes, and has launched a diversity pipeline initiative to create more executive positions for people of color, but Major League Baseball and its fans seemingly long for the years of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb. When ESPN ranked the top 100 MLB players of all time in 2015, six of the top 10 players had played before integration. CBS’s 2016 list of its top 10 players also features six players from a segregated league. So when baseball fans talk about traditions or years past, they are talking about a time that excluded black athletes. And that’s not the only hard pill to swallow.
Other baseball traditions and taboos are alienating to black and Latino fans. Players are supposed to respectfully trot around the diamond after home runs, sans backflips or excessive celebrations. The same self-expression in the form of chest-pounding, trash talk and playing to the crowd that has made the NBA hip — and black — isn’t allowed in baseball. Celebratory dances are frowned upon, part of a culture of unwritten rules with a simple message: Fall in line.
For example, in 2013, Yasiel Puig was pulled to the side by opposing Mets players for rubbing their noses in his home run trot. His offense? Taking 32 seconds to round the bases. All of this is code for following traditions set in stone before black and white and Latino athletes played in the same pro league(s), and when fans were segregated in the stands. And part of those baseball customs is making sure players wear their hats straight.
“It’s the look,” Snitker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 2. “You do respect the game and the organization and the team on the front of it [the hat]. I tell these guys, we don’t do things like everybody else. There’s a lot of Hall of Famers who spent a lot of time in this organization. We wear batting practice jerseys, and people don’t put glasses on over the ‘A,’ things like that, out of respect for the Hall of Famers that put a lot into this organization, and all those flags that are hanging.”
With all due respect, Snitker’s point is not only silly but it’s another reminder that baseball is about its archaic traditions —the Braves organization was founded in 1871, for reference — more than its players, and what those players represent. Acuña, by all indication, is a transformative talent who can turn the Braves’ future around — the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2013 and hasn’t won a postseason series since 2001. The organization is concerned about how he wears his hat, even as plenty of white Braves players have worn their hats backward, to the side and every other way besides straight.
The Acuña hat issue isn’t a new thing. It’s been around, most famously since the ’90s, when the aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr. was a young, swaggy outfielder who seemed poised to take over baseball. But his appearance — backward hats and untucked jerseys — flouted baseball tradition, and one of the biggest defenders of old customs was then-Yankees and current Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
“I shouldn’t say this publicly,” Showalter told the New York Times Magazine in 1994. “But a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttail’s hanging out.” Showalter added Barry Bonds to his list of transgressors for having his shirttail untucked at the All-Star game. “To me, that’s a lack of respect for the game.” Respect. Tradition. Coded language.
What people who share Showalter’s views didn’t understand or don’t want to understand is that Griffey, who only actually wore his hat backward for batting practice, wore his hats backward as a tribute to his father, Ken Griffey Sr. When Griffey Jr. wore his dad’s hats, they were too big, so his turned them backward so they’d fit. Then he just kept doing it, into his pro career. There isn’t a bigger sign of respect for tradition than honoring a father who also used to play in the very same MLB that wanted to maintain said customs. But the controversy wasn’t about why Griffey wore his hat backward. Nobody seemed to care. They only saw a black man with his hat backward and all of the negative connotations that come with it — disrespect, nonchalance. Code words.
Griffey wasn’t afraid to hit back at his detractors. “Why should I care about a person from an opposing team?” Griffey said to the Seattle Times a week after Showalter’s quotes surfaced. “I don’t take the game seriously? Why, I do believe [Showalter] was coaching third for the All-Star team when I won the  MVP.”
The criticism obviously stuck with Griffey, so he poked at the MLB one last time. When he received his Hall of Fame hat in 2016 during his acceptance speech, the first thing he did was turn it backward. One more reminder that he did it his way.
So what does this all mean for baseball as a whole? It’s about cultural irrelevance. Baseball’s reliance on homogenized traditions is its own Trojan horse, infiltrating the sport’s psyche and destroying it from the inside. Holding on to archaic practices that erase unique expressions uphold whiteness but close the sport off to audiences from diverse backgrounds. And for black fans, it’s demoralizing to see people who look like us, and express themselves like we do get constantly reprimanded for representing our cultural tics on a national stage. It’s a major reason black audiences are flocking to the NBA and the MLB has as few black players as ever.
Here’s a legendary story about Satchel Paige. During a semi-pro game, before his Negro League debut, Paige’s team was up 1-0 in the ninth inning. His outfielders made three straight errors to load the bases. Paige, fed up with his team and determined to show off his skill, walked around the bases and outfield, demanding that his teammates sit down in the infield. Then the legendary pitcher struck out the next three batters to end the game.
It’s a story that has become part of baseball lore for its brashness, showmanship and drama. And it’s the same type of story that would get someone like Paige punished for his bravado if it happened in 2018. However, that story is part of baseball tradition. It’s a part of black tradition. And baseball needs to embrace these traditions — alternative hat placements and all — or else become a cultural relic instead of regaining its place as America’s pastime.