How one mail-order ad turned New Era into the MLB hat king almost overnight

Sporting News

The spring of 1980 ushered in the seventh decade of business for New Era, a family-owned team equipment company that supplied caps for baseball squads across the country, from scrawny Little League outfits to mighty MLB clubs. It was a business model that worked.

But in 1979 and early 1980, phone calls and letters started rolling in to company president David Koch’s office with increasing regularity. People wanted to buy the caps they saw their favorite baseball players wearing on the field.

In 2020, as New Era celebrates its 100th anniversary, such fan desire seems obvious. But four decades ago, that was a foreign concept. On-field caps were worn by baseball players, not by people in the stands.

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Koch was a bit perplexed, and he brought up the issue at family dinner, around a table in Derby, N.Y., a small town by the shore of Lake Erie, about 15 miles south of Buffalo.

It’s a moment Chris Koch, David’s son and New Era’s current CEO, will never forget.

“I remember my father, he says, ‘You know, we get these calls all day long from consumers asking to buy caps. I don't get it. Why did they want to wear those caps? This is part of a uniform.’”

Chris Koch, who started working at the New Era manufacturing plant after school at age 16, in 1976, pauses and laughs.

“And my mother, who was a funny lady, was like, ‘Well, who cares why they want wear it? Why don’t we put an ad in The Sporting News and see if there's any business there? Maybe we’ll sell a couple hundred caps. Why not? Let's see what happens.’”

Val Koch was an art teacher who ran the design side of the New Era business — in her free time, while teaching and raising the Koch kids — and she whipped up that first ad and shipped it off to The Sporting News.

The advertisement ran in the April 12, 1980, issue, on Page 31. On the top half of the page was a story about the Atlanta Braves and what manager Bob Cox — yes, Bob and not Bobby — thought of his team’s hopes of starting a new era itself and climbing out of the NL West cellar in the 1980 season.

And just like that, a bold, expansive new era for New Era started with a simple half-page advertisement. As a result of those two events — the conversation and the advertisement — nothing would ever be the same for New Era, which was propelled down a path toward becoming a worldwide, billion-dollar brand that sells an estimated 142 hats per minute around the globe.

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At the New Era headquarters near Lake Erie, not much thought was given to the advertisement, at least for a week or two.

“We lived in this little old town of Derby, and my father would go and get the mail,” Chris said. “One day he gets his little box of mail at the counter and the woman says, ‘That’s not all, Dave. There is stuff in the back. And he says, ‘What are you talking about?’ She's like, ‘I don't know, but there's a lot of it.’ So he went to the back and there was, like, five of those giant mailbags just stuffed full.”

David Koch loaded the bags into his vehicle and headed to the plant.

“What it turned out being was thousands and thousands of copies of this ad, filled out, with a check for $12.50,” Chris Koch said. “And it went on like that day after day after day. I remember him saying after that first day, sitting down at the table, ‘You know, we might be on to something here.’ That was the first ah-ha moment.”

It was a cha-ching moment, too.

“The fan business very quickly became, I would say, probably more than 50 percent of the business, almost literally overnight,” Chris Koch said. “Within a couple years, it was all hands on deck, continuing to make more product.”

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Not only did the Sporting News advertisement — they ran another half-page ad on April 11, 1981, and then a third one on April 19, 1982 — change who New Era sold product to, it changed how New Era created product.

“It forced us to create a whole fulfillment area,” New Era brand historian Jim Wannemacher said. “From the stories I’ve heard, they took over the whole seventh floor of our facility in downtown Buffalo, built this giant wall and filled it was stocked product, which was the first time we actually would make product to keep against incoming orders. Most of our time, we had been a made-to-order company. You ordered it, we made it and sent it to you. That was it. We never kept anything in inventory. So that kind of pushed us into mindset of making stuff and creating inventory that people can order.”

Think about how crazy that seems in today’s world. New Era didn’t have backstock. They didn’t have extras. They made caps as people ordered and paid for them.

The New Era business cycle looked like this: Salesmen would spend the entire summer crisscrossing the nation, selling to any team, at any level, that might need caps for the next year. The sales folks would turn in their orders and the manufacturing plant would kick into gear, producing the hats — sewn by hand — starting in September and rolling into spring, when the orders would be delivered. And then the sales force went out again. It worked this way for decades.

Oh, and the company had a long-standing policy that if the hats became distressed, you could send them back and, for $1.50, they’d be repaired. So teams would do that to save money, instead of ordering new rounds of caps every year. Great from a customer-service standpoint, not as great for the bottom line.

But once the company used The Sporting News — the Bible of Baseball, as it was known — to spread the word that New Era now had a direct-to-consumer option, everything changed. And with the door open a crack into a new sales world, New Era did its best to shove that door wide open. While sales people were on the road, they stopped into retail stores along the way, too. And those orders started rolling in by the tens of thousands, each order significantly larger than the last.

“All of a sudden we start getting orders from Foot Locker for 50,000 caps,” Chris Koch said. “Needless to say, it was a mad scramble to increase production and figure out how we were gonna make the much product. The 1980s were a really interesting time for us. No matter how much product we made, it was never enough. It was kind of crazy.”

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New Era moved from the 50,000-square foot facility to a 300,000-square foot home, and eventually opened manufacturing operations in Alabama, too, as the company kept growing. The growth never really stopped.

“We took something that was a sort of an accessory and really turned it into a category in the industry,” Chris Koch said. “The category grows every year, and we’ve got to continue to figure out ways to keep consumers interested. I always say to my people there, ‘Nobody needs another cap. We have to give them a reason to want another cap.’”

Wannemacher, who started with New Era in 2000 as a graphic designer and held multiple roles in the company before pitching his current “brand historian” role — which Chris Koch immediately green-lighted — four years ago, said that ad in The Sporting News was one of the singular defining moments in company history.

“I don't think it can be understated,” he said. "Then you have the Spike Lee story and the exclusivity with MLB. Those three are the big ones.”

The Spike Lee moment came in 1996, when the famed director asked the company for a special-order Yankees cap in red — a color change that had never happened — and opened many more doors. And the exclusivity with MLB happened in 1993, when New Era became the official cap supplier for every MLB team.

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It’s quite the storyline for a company started in 1920, selling Gatsby-style gentlemen’s caps, landed its first MLB cap deal with the Cleveland Indians in 1934, created the company’s signature 59FIFTY caps in 1954 and branched out whenever possible.

It’s enough to make Val Koch — the one who had the idea that sparked the company’s new era — a very proud and grateful person as the company she helped fuel celebrates its 100th birthday in 2020. The company will celebrate all year, with special editions, unique collaborations and re-issues of classic caps.

“I still update her on everything that’s going on,” Chris Koch said. “She’s still very interested. At 84 years old, she’s a very young 84 years old. Sharp as a tack, still in great shape. She’s still interested in what's going on, all the all the different things we're doing.

“She always talked about how amazing it is that we've been able to put all that together, and how we should always talk about that more because this company started as a little tiny baseball-cap company.”

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