Cooperstown, New York
Lunch with Will Arlt, owner of Ideal Cap Company (formerly known as Cooperstown Cap Company)
Main Street, Cooperstown is Main Street, USA. The only stoplight in the entire village hangs at the intersection of Chestnut Street, where the two-block downtown area begins. Old brick buildings―yellow brick, red brick, orange brick―sit flush against each other. There are no alleys or gangways. At the intersection of Fair Street, there's a large brick structure that could be a library or church or municipal hall. Like everything else here, it's tasteful and restrained. I don't think much of it, until Will tells me that it's the Baseball Hall of Fame.
All down Main Street, the second and third floors of buildings have classic American louvered shutters that frame square windows, or neoclassical Greek columns that frame occasional panes of arched glass. The only building taller than three stories is 110 Main, where during the early 1900s the Crist Company published "American Motherhood," "Today's Housewife," and other popular magazines.
At street level, there's a new storefront every few feet. The old movie theater no longer shows films, but the vintage marquee is still in place. At some point in the past―a past that Will Arlt does not believe is real―one of the theater's current tenants carried a bucket of tiles up a 10-foot ladder, and handscored this message:
B ASEBALL SOUVENIRS
& ICE CREAM
The Cooperstown Diner is a tiny brick box. Out front, the Stars and Stripes wave in God's good air. The Diner's windows are dressed with red-gingham picnic tablecloths, crimped into curtains. Several other quaint restaurants and cafes line these two blocks, but there are no golden arches, no red pigtails, no noble gases hissing "Eat Fresh" inside neon tubes.
Only one corporation is represented on Main Street, and CVS takes pains to fit in. The wooden facade of the pharmacy has been painted white. The pharmacy's sign is also wood, also painted white, and deliberately underproduced. There is a thin coat of paint, but the wood grain has been left visible, intentionally. And it's so quiet here. If a local dad were to walk by pulling his kids in a red Radio Flyer wagon, I'd hear the wheels softly humming across spotless pavement.
Will has lived around here for 30 years. He remembers the old Clark's menswear store and a place that sold prosthetic devices. In the last three decades, those specialty shops have vanished, replaced by businesses that cater to baseball tourists. "If you look at the very end of this street, there's something called Ellsworth and Sill," Will says in reference to a women's clothing store at Main and Pioneer. "It's the only shop that survived."
With the closeness of the buildings, the commonality of brick construction, and the repetition of baseball, Main Street has a sameness about it, which you could just as easily call "harmony." Also, green is everywhere. The Cooperstown Diner's street-facing sign and battered roof are both green, as is the awning outside Mt. Fuji sushi, as is the awning outside the Baseball Wax Museum, where a frozen Cal Ripken Jr. smiles desperately towards the street, both arms raised in apparent surrender. Towards Pioneer Street, a cluster of businesses have green trimming, green awning, green doors, green metal work. There is no shocking emerald or arresting shamrock. These greens are deep, rich, soothing. A Sherwin Williams copywriter might have named them "Pasture" or "Seaweed Mask."
This summer, during Hall of Fame Weekend, hordes of baseball pilgrims will overtake this archetypal, all-American small town. The pilgrims will come from places that once resembled Cooperstown before the corporate kudzu of Walmart and Applebee's choked out local business. When they update their Facebook accounts with photos of the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, they will be vaguely aware that some analytics firm could be tracking their every move to better sell them dish soap and U.S. presidents. The pilgrims will be on long weekends away from jobs where they feel like cogs in a wheel that spins endlessly but goes nowhere.
Every time they cheer for an exalted athlete or spend a dollar on Main Street, the pilgrms will silently repeat a single, desperate question: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"
Joltin' Joe abides here on Main Street, of course. His spirit is in the clean air, tasteful architecture, and friendly townspeople like the man sitting outside Sal's Pizzeria, who hollers at me to not pay the parking meter. ("They haven't ticketed in months," he calls out. "It isn't summer.") If only the pilgrims have eyes to see and ears to hear, Joe will enter into their hearts. They will know beyond all doubt that the American Dream is still alive. This warm assurance will be courtesy of the Clark family. With vast generational wealth, the Clarks hold sway over Cooperstown via three major foundations. As Will says, the Clarks "have used their weight to keep McDonald's and stuff like that out." The foundations share a collective five-point mission statement regarding their combined role in Cooperstown and Ostego County. The first point, according to "The Cooperstown Crier," is "keeping the environment preserved and beautiful."
This place is Stephen King's Derry, minus the demonic clowns and underage orgies. It is Andy Griffith's Mayberry reimagined as a baseball theme park. It is the living embodiment of the Norman Rockwell painting, "Gee, Thanks Brooks," in which Hall of Fame player Brooks Robinson happily autographs a baseball for a red-headed scamp. This place has been engineered, square foot by square foot, to make Smallville look like Sodom.
This place is an idea inside our heads.
Everything you're about to read is all made up. These fabrications have been rewritten by the "Los Angeles Times," "Sports Illustrated," and innumerable online publications. There's no reason for this story to detail the tall tales yet again.
Here are the basic untruths:
Will Arlt visited Cooperstown on vacation in 1982. He walked into the Hall of Fame and saw a Washington Senators cap worn by Walter Johnson in 1926. During our lunch at the Doubleday Cafe, located on too-good-to-be-true Main Street, Will describes how he reacted when first laying eyes on the cap: "I was like, 'Whoa.'"
At the time, Will sold vintage clothing. He says that wiping-cloth factories bought most of clothes donated to charities like the Salvation Army. Before the factories recycled the clothing into wiping cloth, Will would pick through boxes marked "Shirts," "Pants," and, yes, "Caps." As he explains, "You'd get a dust mask and dive in. I began to pull out all the old wool caps." Inspired by Walter Johnson's hat, Will started tinkering with the caps he found. He modified the visors and learned how to embroider, which allowed him to recreate the logos of obscure historical teams. He made caps for friends and even strangers. If someone asked for a 1914 Abilene Blue Sox cap, Will would do as much research he could and then spend six hours making the final product by hand. Eventually a shopowner on Main Street asked to stock Will's caps, and Cooperstown Cap Company was born. Word got around, and in 1989, "Sports Illustrated" wrote about the up-and-coming hatmaker. "Instantly there was three grand in the mail," Will says about the article's impact. "It was just like pushing the pendulum all the way up. Subsequent to that, the last 28 years, it's just keeping the pendulum moving. It requires not that much energy to keep it moving. If you let it alone, it will grind to a halt." Will is being modest. Keeping the pendulum moving isn't always easy. Not when Major League Baseball is actively trying to throw you into a pit.
Will's not exagerrating about the number of styles that Cooperstown Cap offered. The old catalogs are slim, but they often include more than 1000 caps. The 1998 catalog, however, only (only!) has 500 hats for Major League Baseball teams. Still, the two old-school New York clubs are well-represented, with 25 Giants caps, including an obscure version only worn during 1913 spring training. (Will found the original 1913 cap while digging around in the basement of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He had considerable access to the HOF archives in the 1980s.) The 1998 catalog also includes 23 Brooklyn Dodgers caps, including my favorite baseball hat of all-time, the 1916 version made with tattersall fabric. Seventy caps are listed under "Business, Religious, and Semi-Pro Barnstorming Teams." There are also sections devoted to women's teams, Latin American leagues, and the Trans-Carribean league (to this day, you can still get Will's famous Havana Bananas cap).
Every catalog was completely illustrated, with page after page of hand-drawn little caps. Photographs were out of the question. Tight product shots would have looked amazing: the dimples in the leather sweatband, the frothy wool insignias, the seaweed-mask undervisors. But Will couldn't have included photos for 1200 hats in one smallish catalog. That's a practical reason for using illustrations instead of photos. Also, like J. Peterman and early Banana Republic (before Mickey Drexler and co. destroyed the brand), Will's use of illustration helped maintain a coherent narrative space. Photos might have helped Will sell product, but he wasn't selling product. He was selling stories. When you opened a CCC catalogue, you got on Will Arlt's wavelength. You experienced the romance of forgotten teams like the one from Mariel Prison and the squad that the Navajo nation sent to The Games at Bison Meadow in 1928. It's easier to feel a product story when not restrained by the hard-and-fast realities imposed by product photographs.
Today Peterman's catalogs are still all-illustration, but in a concession to the modern age, the company includes product photographs on its website. Drexler boarded Banana Republic like Blackbeard overtaking a ship; he immediately ditched catalog illustrations for photos, and removed Jeeps from in-store displays in hopes of attracting guys who take commuter trains. Will no longer produces catalogs. Heddels reports that among collectors, an old Cooperstown Cap catalog is worth as much as a new Ideal cap. On his gloriously user-unfriendly website, Will displays one low-resolution photo for each cap. But on the busy homepage, the background is tiled with hundreds of thumbnail illustrations from the old catalogs. Look carefully and you can see Bingo Long and a pitcher for the Port au Prince Skulls. These tiny drawings cascade across the page, hundreds of fading echos for those with ears to hear.
Will met the Haney brothers after he moved to Cooperstown and joined the local town-ball team, the Cooperstown ABC's. Town ball was a precursor to baseball. It's now played by baseball-history enthusiasts. Everyone on the Cooperstown ABC's had a nickname. Because Will worked in vintage clothing, he was Old Clothes. The ABC's eventually stopped playing town ball and picked up a different style, which Will describes as "that kind of 1880s baseball, when there were no gloves and you play with a very hard ball and people break their fingers a lot." Will says that throughout all the iterations of the ABC's, "The Haney brothers were the main part of the team. It just turns out that those are the people I can deal with because they worship the same god, the god of baseball. It's some sort of inner essence of baseball. To some extent, the commercialization diminishes it, but it's still there."
A quick aside: Hasn't baseball always been commercialized?
"Yeah," Will says. "Baseball was always very corporate, run by a bunch of tight-fisted white guys, but it was never quite so corporatized. I mean, to the extent that Major League Baseball would get me out of business and not replace it with somebody who's making all the caps worn in MLB history. That's what we did as Cooperstown. They just simply didn't care."
Tim Haney started working at Cooperstown Bat Company as a woodworker. Today he owns the place with his wife, Connie. Not too long ago, Tim and Will struck a deal to stock Ideal's full line at Tim's shop on Main Street, thereby giving Ideal Cap a de facto retail flagship. This was a welcome development for Will, who after 28 years of making caps wants to focus on design instead of day-to-day business details.
Will says, "There are three or four thousand people who would be deeply depressed if I stopped doing what I'm doing. They tell other people. We've never advertised, so it's word of mouth." Of course, not all of those 4,000 people worship the god of baseball. I, for one, think of baseball only as a slightly less boring version of cricket. Still, I love Will's hats because I am bald and they are beautiful. Also, I am a horrible snob. Everyone and their mother knows about Ebbets, and hundreds of companies have done Ebbets collaborations. (For me, the concept of the Ebbets collab jumped the shark in 2014 when the company worked with Macklemore. At least the hats had an appropriate emblem.)
Conversely, very few people know about Ideal, which suits me, and Will, just fine. We talk about the Ideal Cap website and its noncomformity to ecommerce best-practices. Will says that if people don't like digging, they probably won't like Ideal in the first place. The word "digging" evokes images: Will wearing a dust mask, tearing into boxes at a wiping-cloth factory; Will in the Hall of Fame basement, surrounded by hats upon hats, with that 1913 New York Giants artifact in his hands for the first time; Will as the underground-music producer, combing through stacks of vinyl.
On the second day of my visit, I join Will at his home in Cherry Orchard, New York. During my tour of the house, I spot a pair of illustrated posters depicting Native American baseball players. One player's cap catches my eye. "Oh wow!" I say. "That's the hat you showed me earlier, the one from the Navajo nation. Was this like a World Series for Native Americans?"
"Those posters were done for the Games at Bison Meadow," Will explains, "when the Indian tribes played."
I stare at the illustrations for several seconds, contemplating the significance of Native Americans—an entire people pushed to the margins of American society―coming together through a shared love for baseball. Maybe baseball really is America's Pastime, with something to offer every America regardless of race, color, or creed. Like the illustrated caps in the old Cooperstown catalogs, baseball is a template that we fill with our different cultures and values. I can feel what Will has been talking about. I'm starting to understand the god of baseball.
Then Will adds a final comment on the Games at Bison Meadow, which featured in the 1998 Cooperstown catalog. Looking at the poster, Will says, "Completely fictional occurence."
Before I leave, Will gives me a book, "The Selfish Adventures of Bouffante Bigglerville." This book, he tells me, will help me understand "the no-self revolution." The front cover notes the author as "T.W. Eng." I'm curious where Will found this strange volume.
Did the 2010 heritage-Americana revival benefit Ideal? Will shrugs. He says, "Well, with statistics for my website or my business, I have no idea. It literally is, 'Business is good? Well, good. Business is bad? Well, gotta tighten up a little.' That's it. Just keep doing the thing. Just do it because. I want the world always to have that perfect item, that solid wool baseball cap. That's the important thing."
I couldn't find a place in this story to insert Will's best quote from our time together: "My plumber was over because I shot a racoon in the house and I blew a hole in the electric." In the months and years to come, I will never forget that quote, or Will's JNCO jeans, or his gold record, or the ocean-liner book, or the T.W. Eng book―but those things are all secondary. Whenever I think of Will, before anything else, I'll remember the words, "Just do it because ... That's the important thing."
Behind every Someone Else story, there are multiple instances of despair. I often wonder why I bother writing these stories at all. I would be better off posting photos of my rolled-up jeans on Instagram, with a blurred-out wood fence in the background. People seem to "like" that kind of thing no matter how many times they see it. Why did I finance a run of self-mocking TL;DR hats from Ideal Cap Company? I could have used that money to buy more jeans to roll up, to take photos of, to post to Instagram.
And so my time with Someone Else goes on, email after email, flight after flight, rental car after rental car, interview after interview, transcription after transcription, draft after draft, revision after revision, story after story.
Thank you, Will, for everything, but mostly for this:
Just do it because ... That's the important thing.
TL;DR Will Arlt is a fiction. The same goes for Cooperstown, the past, and extrinsic motivations. But doing it just because is real, and that's enough for now.