In 1928, David Warsaw founded Sports Specialties Corporation, which was the first company to sign a licensing contract with a professional sports team. While creating and manufacturing sports souvenirs at his Chicago-based company, he came up with the idea for ashtrays in the shape of Wrigley Field and selling them to Cubs fans. He approached Cubs owner Phil Wrigley for permission to sell them at Wrigley Field and won him over when he agreed to pay him a "royalty" on every ashtray sold. As his business grew, so did his ideas. In addition to the ashtrays, David patented a miniature ceramic baseball player, whose head bounced on a small spring. Today, this doll is known around the world as the "bobble-head doll".
David’s sons Jim and Robert entered the family business. Together the Warsaw family grew Sports Specialties into the world's leading licensed sports headwear company. In 1963, Sports Specialties became the first official licensee of the National Football League and was the first to be named as an official championship locker room headwear supplier for special sports events such as the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, All-Star Games, and the NCAA Final Four. Now base out of Irvine, California, Sports Specialties secured the first "Authentic" license agreement in professional sports when the NFL "ProLine" was created in 1984. They became an official licensee of Major League Baseball that same year, entering the on-field professional model cap market, competing against New Era Cap Company and Roman Pro Cap Company. Sports Specialties took the place vacated by Wilson Sporting Goods, which had just left the on-field cap market.
Early 1980s Sports Specialties caps
The company's signature 100% wool sized caps, called “The Pro" (their equivalent to New Era’s 59/50), were the first contracts for "on field" authentic headwear for the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and the 1992 Olympic Basketball Dream Team, as well as more than 80 countries in the International Baseball Association. Sports Specialties was bought by MacGregor Sporting Goods Inc. in 1986 and was sold by late 1987 to the Oppenheimer-Palmieri Fund L.P. Their caps were used by several Major League Baseball teams throughout the 1980s, giving New Era a run for their money by the end of the decade. More than half of the MLB teams used their caps for at least one season. Around that time, Sports Specialties and New Era were granted dual exclusive licensing for MLB caps, making them the only two makers of on-field professional model caps under the “Diamond Collection” label (Roman Pro and ANNCO were granted dual exclusive licensing under the “Cooperstown Collection”). During the 1989 World Series (between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants and when the famous earthquake struck) both teams were wearing Sports Specialties caps.
"The Pro" tag from the 1980s
Sports Specialties never truly gained the upper-hand against New Era despite improvements to their caps, but they still continued to supply caps to teams into the 1993 season, including new expansion teams the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. In 1994 New Era received the sole exclusive license contract for all teams. That same year, Sports Specialties was sold to Nike and continued to make their on-field MLB caps as “generic” versions, no longer carrying the Diamond Collection label or featuring the MLB "batterman" logo on the back of their caps. The material also changed from 100% wool to wool, acrylic, and polyester combinations. They continued to make MLB caps until the end of the 1990s.
Inner tag from a Florida Marlins spring training-issued cap circa 1993
Most Sports Specialties caps were not made in the United States. They were manufactured by the Young An Hat Company in Korea, which still exists today but no longer makes ballcaps. Their caps were later made in various South American and Asian countries. After the introduction of the Diamond Collection in 1988, team-issued caps were made in the United States. Sports Specialties caps are recognizable by their thick wool, flat as possible embroidery, and short, narrow visors. Their sizes were also sometimes one to two times larger than New Era's sizes.
The inner tag post-1994
Teams I have confirmed to have used Sports Specialties caps at one time or another (there is probably more):
Boston Red Sox
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals