Hey baseball fans,
I will begin my first real blog by talking about my favorite caps of all time: the San Diego Padres “taco bell” caps of the 1970s and 80s. Take warning that this will be a long read; however, future blogs most likely won’t be this long. These caps are my favorites. I have tried to find out everything about them, so please bear with me and I promise you will learn lots of interesting facts.
First of all, most people think there are two versions of the Padres “taco bell” caps: the 1974 to 1979 version, and the 1980 to 1984 version which added orange outlines and eyelets. However, there are many different versions and variations made by three different companies and multiple reproductions.
First off, why are they called “taco bell” caps? Well, take a look at the yellow front panel of the cap. Modern-day remakes of these caps make it simply in the shape of a triangle, which is very inaccurate. If you look at the original caps straight on, the front panel is in the shape of a bell.
Why a bell? It has to do with the California Missions. If you don’t know what they are here is what Wikipedia says:
“The Spanish missions in California comprise a series of religious and military outposts established by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order between 1769 and 1823 to spread the Christian faith among the local Native Americans. The missions represented the first major effort by Europeans to colonize the Pacific Coast region, and gave Spain a valuable toehold in the frontier land. The settlers introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry into the California region; however, the Spanish occupation of California also brought with it serious negative consequences to the Native American populations with whom the missionaries came in contact. In the end, the mission had mixed results in its objective to convert, educate, and "civilize" the indigenous population and transforming the natives into Spanish colonial citizens. Today, the missions are among the state's oldest structures and the most-visited historic monuments.”
Long story short, the Padres team is named after the padres (Spanish for “fathers”) of the missions, and the missions all had bells. The taco bell nickname comes from the Taco Bell restaurant logo of the 80s which had basically the same colors as the Padres.
The Padres actually didn’t start using the “bell” design during the 1974 season like most believe. It actually began in 1972, and they were used for Sunday home games. However, they weren’t exactly identical to the versions that most people know. The “bell” was actually much larger, reaching all the way to the side panels of the cap. Here is a 1972 picture of the Padres then-manager and well-known character of baseball, Don Zimmer, wearing the famous “mustard yellow” uniform.
After experimenting with a couple of different cap designs, the Padres went back to their original brown cap with the yellow interlocked “SD” logo for the 1973 season. The 1974 season saw the debut of the first true “bell” cap which they used through the 1979 season and 1980 spring training (from what I can tell). Both New Era and the now-defunct KM Pro Cap Company made the earlier Padres caps but so far I haven't been able to find out which brand they used on-field. However, I am 100% sure that New Era was the only maker for the taco bell caps in the 1970s. New Era’s caps were unique in the fact that on (almost) all caps, the front panels were made of nylon instead of wool if the front panel was a different color. Teams like the Blue Jays, Expos, Brewers, etc. all had nylon front panels. The Padres bell was no exception. At first, the caps featured the old-school amenities, such as satin taping and horsehair backing under the front panels. By the late 70s they had changed to the black taping and (then) regular style backing. The sweatbands also came in a wide variety. Leather was the standard back then, and the Padres used a couple of different types of leather. Most New Era caps had a smooth type of leather but two of my caps each have different kinds of leather that look more like strips of beef jerky. My one cloth-banded cap uses a more thin kind of cloth band, which must affect the size because mine is a 7 1/4 but fits more like 7 3/8.
Here is my personal collection of 70s caps:
First cap: adjustable spring training style. Second cap: Game used in 1976 by pitcher Alan Foster. Third, Fourth, and Fifth caps are non-game issued, the last two are mint condition.
1976 game used cap by pitcher Alan Foster displaying the early style satin taping and horsehair backing.
Beginning in the 1980 season, the Padres had orange “highlights” added to the caps and thus created the most popular variation of this cap. The top button, the eyelets, and the stitching along the outside of the bell were made orange, and an orange outline was made around the interlocked “SD.” The interlocked “SD” color was also changed to black.
Most people think there is only one version of this cap made for on-field use. Actually, there are two different versions that New Era made. During the 1984 season, the interlocked “SD” was reduced in size, and less stitching was used on the outer area of the bell. I first noticed this while reading an article about former Padres manager Dick Williams and pitcher Goose Gossage, who were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008. Here are the photos of Williams and Gossage that I saw.
See the difference?
While I said that New Era made two different versions, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t stop at two. Remember that back in those days there were other ballcap manufacturers, and they made their own versions of caps for every team regardless of whether that team was using their brand or not. While that wasn’t the case with the 70s taco bell caps (to this day I have not seen any other makers’ version of the cap), at least two other companies made their own versions of the 80s version: the Roman Pro Cap Company (KM Pro Cap Company's successor) and Sports Specialties Corp., both of whom were trying to take business away from New Era.
My personal collection: First cap: Sports Specialties version, Second cap: Roman version, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth caps: New Era 1984 versions.
Roman Pro’s version is strikingly different than the New Era versions. Right away you may notice that the bell is more triangular, and stitching on the outside of the bell is more solid. The bell’s fabric is a different material other than wool but it seems too smooth and shiny to be nylon, but it might be. The interlocked “SD” is more square in shape with sharper edges, is brown instead of black, and hey wait a minute… it’s not even interlocked! The “SD” is overlapped instead. Roman’s version appears to be the prototype for all the poor reproductions made today.
The Sports Specialties version was sold exclusively at the stadium’s fan shop, or so I have been told by a couple of different people. Oddly though, the seller of my cap told me that it was game used. From what I can tell, the Padres always used New Era and didn’t use Sports Specialties until the late 80s. Maybe they tried them out during spring training? Who knows. Anyway, the logo on the Sports Specialties version looks much like the 1984 New Era version, only it is brown like the Roman version. Another difference is the “D” on the “SD”, the outline where it interlocks with the bottom of the “S” is done in a different way. The stitching on the outside of the bell is solid like the Roman version as well, just thinner. The bell itself is more of the correct shape and is made of wool like the rest of the cap. All in all, the Sports Specialties version is almost a combination of the New Era and Roman versions.
Unfortunately, after Padres owner Ray Kroc died in 1984 and the Padres got creamed by the Detroit Tigers in that year’s World Series, the team made a drastic change in appearance, and one of the most interesting (THE most interesting in my mind) baseball caps of all time became a part of baseball’s past.
Today, we are left with inaccurate knockoffs. Not even New Era can accurately remake them (they blame it on the fact that they “make their caps in a different way now”). The flaws are numerous, including a bell that is way too big. However, New Era has fixed the interlocked “SD” on newer versions to become more accurate, and it is what the Padres use for their “turn back the clock” games. A New Era remake of the 70s version exists but is very hard to find these days. New Era will probably make more available the next time the Padres have a 70s “turn back the clock” game. The only place you can really get the 80s version is at a website called http://www.mickeysplace.com.
The only other remake of the 80s version on the market today is made by American Needle, and is apparently based on the Roman version. American Needle did make 70s taco bell caps at one time but no longer does. You can find the 80s version pretty much anywhere online.
The most accurate remake ever made was by Mitchell & Ness, who no longer has the license to make MLB caps. They were made for a brief time when Mitchell & Ness tried to take over the bankrupt Roman Pro Cap Company in the mid 90s. I never knew they even existed until recently. Mitchell & Ness modified Roman’s version to look more like the original New Era version. Although Roman’s “overlapped SD” is still used, the inside color was changed to the correct black. Also, the stitching on the outside of the bell was made more like New Era’s stitching. Unfortunately, these caps are very hard to find. I’ve had better luck finding the originals. I only have found one of these. After Mitchell & Ness changed their cap manufacturing, they made a version identical to the American Needle version. Below is a picture of one of the rare accurate versions (mine is just slightly out of shape, by the way):
Another company that made reproductions was the Cooperstown Ballcap Company, which just recently closed its doors. While I was able to get a 70s taco bell cap, I wasn’t able to get the 80s style. As you can see, it’s not exactly accurate. Turn of the century-style caps were more of Cooperstown Ballcap’s forte.
So there you have it. The full history of the famous Padres “taco bell” caps, which I have been obsessed with since childhood. I hope you enjoyed it! Any suggestions for the next cap I write about are welcome!