The late 1990s saw a marked rise in one of Uni Watch’s favorite trends—the subtle baseball cap revision. The Mets got things started in 1997, when they changed the little button on the top of their cap from blue to orange —a brilliantly inconspicuous move. Then the Orioles upped the ante in 1998, when they ever-so-slightly tweaked their avian cap logo to make it more ornithologically accurate. But the most sublime maneuver was pulled off that same season by the Angels: They changed the fabric on the bottom side of their cap brim—the undervisor, as it’s known in the trade—from gray to black.
Undervisors may seem like a rather obscure detail, but don’t try telling that to then-Angels GM Bill Bavasi. In ordering the color change, he broke ranks with the other 29 Major League Baseball teams, all of which were wearing—and have continued to wear—gray undervisors. So why the switcheroo? “He had some research done on it,” says Angels spokesman Eric Kay. “It showed black was best for reducing glare and improving visibility.” That makes sense: After all, players wear eye black, not eye gray.
If Bavasi goes down as a pioneer, it’ll be somewhat by default: Undervisor history is rather spotty. It’s generally agreed that undervisors, like most uniform elements, varied widely in baseball’s early days. The Baseball Hall of Fame’s excellent “Dressed to the Nines” online exhibit notes a particularly interesting development in 1895, when “a number of ballplayers, including future Hall of Fame outfielder Jesse Burkett, experimented with baseball caps that had green-tinted, transparent bills. The idea was to allow the fielder a better range of view while protecting him from the glare of the sun, but apparently the see-through bills never caught on.”
Undervisors didn’t become standardized until 1954, when New Era—then, as now, the sport’s cap outfitter—introduced the 59Fifty, the cap model that still serves as Major League Baseball’s official headwear. “That was the first model that had a uniform green undervisor,” says John DeWaal, New Era’s VP for global marketing. “I believe at the time they thought green was the best for reducing glare.”
Green remained the standard for the next two decades (which is why it’s still used for retro caps). The first team to switch to gray appears to have been the Big Red Machine. According to the admirably uni-obsessive newsletter Uniformity: “The introduction of gray underbills to major league caps came in 1977 by the Cincinnati Reds. The change from the formerly used green came as the result of a U.S. Government report, in which the Navy stated that the color gray was advantageous to use on Navy battleships, as it was easier on the crew’s eyes and kept our military men in blue more on alert.”
This account jibes with the one given by Johnny Bench in his otherwise forgettable and all-too-aptly titled book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baseball: “Once, the Reds changed the color underneath the bill of the cap from green to gray. Greens and dark colors supposedly made you angry and tense; the gray supposedly made you calmer and more focused.” Recent chatter on the Society for American Baseball Research listserv indicates the Reds may have gone gray as early as 1974. In any case, other teams followed Cincinnati’s lead (alas, a team-by-team breakdown of when each franchise changed to gray is beyond even Uni Watch’s scope), and the shade of gray eventually became standardized as Pantone 429.
There’s been no similar trend to copy Anaheim’s move to black, but that’s not to say nobody else likes the idea—in fact, Bill Bavasi wasn’t the first one to think of it. “Orel Hershiser always requested a black undervisor,” says New Era exec DeWaal. “Apparently it helped him focus.” Photographic evidence confirms that Hershiser usually wore black while with the Dodgers, Giants, and Mets, but on at least one occasion with the Indians he wore standard-issue gray—shocking!
As for Bavasi, he’s now GM of the Seattle Mariners. Fans will be heartened to learn that despite the team’s sole possession of last place after the season’s first two weeks, Bavasi has managed to stay focused on the truly important matters. According to New Era’s DeWaal, Bavasi is thinking about switching the Mariners to black undervisors.