Ah, the leather sweatband. A controversial topic for us baseball cap enthusiasts. Preferred by the traditionalist but derided by the casual wearer. Over the course of the last twenty-five years, leather sweatbands in baseball caps have become a rarity and have all but disappeared. However, there are still a few places were leather sweatbands can be found today.
One place where leather sweatbands can still be found is on the field of Major League Baseball. No way! Really? Yes, it's true. MLB umpires can still get leather sweatbands on their caps.
Although leather sweatbands on MLB and MiLB players caps were last seen in 1988 (with some caps possibly lingering into 1989), they have continued to be seen inside non-retail versions of umpire caps.
The leather style has also changed. The sweatbands had been the exact same kind seen inside of on-field caps since the 70s, but by the early 2000s the leather began being covered by some sort of paint or stain. Then in 2006 it changed to what it is today; a black-colored thicker cut of leather with no "reed" on it, as those older types of sweatbands with reeds are simply no longer being manufactured. A 2006 umpire cap I have worn by umpire Tim Timmons features the newer black leather, so the change must have happened around that time. This leather also has a much stronger leather smell. Another peculiar trait of these umpire caps is that they lack the "Authentic Collection" tag and the "Batterman" logo on the back is embroidered flat like pre-2007 on-field caps. This may be to indicate that they are not for retail.
I was able to personally contact a highly-respected veteran major league umpire and I asked him about why umpires still use leather sweatbands. I will not reveal their name out of respect for their privacy. He said:
"When a home plate umpire takes his mask off, the (leather) hat band helps keep the hat on without moving it or falling over the face (where the umpire couldn't see)."
He also had something else interesting to say. Basically, when New Era took over the MLB contract in 1994, they tried to do away with leather once and for all.
"Out first hats delivered by New Era were sent back with a letter explaining this (that they preferred leather). New Era sent a letter back saying that "no one in the Commissioner's Office wears hats with leather bands." I sent a return letter saying,"the last time I checked, no one in the Commissioner's Office wears a hat.""
New Era may have attempted to do away with leather bands again in more recent years. I have been unable to find an MLB umpire cap with a leather sweatband from between 2009 and 2011. I am unsure of when exactly they came back, but it must have been sometime between 2012 and 2014, because the one that I own has the current tags but a holographic MLB undervisor sticker with Commissioner Bud Selig's signature on it.
A source at New Era (that will also remain anonymous) had this to say:
"We have done and still do leather sweats (sic) on Umpire caps for the MLB on a limited and special order basis. The sweat (sic) has changed a bit but we still offer it for Umpires only."
The evolution of MLB Umpire caps with leather sweatbands over the past 25 years:
New Era Heritage Series
New Era's recent "1934 Heritage Series" also uses leather sweatbands as well as on some of their "19Twenty" line more commonly seen in Japan. This leather is different from the umpire caps, however. It looks more like the pre-WWII era leather but it is actually a hybrid of a leather and cloth band. The thin leather is backed with foam and gauze like a cloth band.
Ebbets Field Flannels
EFF used leather sweatbands regularly until fifteen years or so ago when they changed over to cloth bands full-time. However, they brought back leather a couple of years ago for their 8-Panel Ballcap line. These caps use a thin cut of black leather with the Ebbets Field Flannels logo embossed on it. If interested, check out www.ebbets.com to check out their current selection of 8-Panel caps. Be sure to read the descritions because not all of them have leather sweatbands.
Ideal Cap Co.
Ideal Cap Co. and it's predecessor Cooperstown Ballcap Co. have always and still continue to carry the torch for leather sweatbands. Owner Willy Arlt told me:
"(We use) 2 different forms: unfinished, cut directly from hides and finished with a rolled bead around the bottom like the ones found in men's wear. We used to use a soft finish on them at CBC, but they wore pretty quickly so now they are more glazed for better wear at the expense of the sensuality."
This Ideal Cap Co. cap shows the export-only Cooperstown Ballcap Co. label.
Photo courtesy of Louis Griffel.
You can check out Ideal Cap Co.'s selection at www.idealcapco.com
So there you have it. Long live leather!!!