A Philadelphian who knew how sports gets in - and on - our heads | Frank's Place

Photos – local – AP 050817017283
Babe Ruth is seen in an undated photo.

We baby boom baseball fans grew up defiantly bareheaded.

Our fathers and especially our grandfathers wore fedoras and straw hats to ballgames. Our children and grandchildren now watch in baseball caps, an affectation the late sportswriter Frank Deford astutely noted is akin to “a guy wearing tights to a ballet.”

Not us. We were a lost generation. JFK had made hats unpopular, and by the late 1960s they had come to signify a conformity and emotional containment we rejected. Besides, they obscured the long hair that, often at great social peril, we’d so carefully cultivated.

But age brings wisdom as surely as baldness. These days I see unapologetic gray-haired men like me in baseball caps everywhere.  And, for some reason, those old photos of baseball crowds populated almost exclusively by men in hats, which once looked so odd, now seem oddly compelling.

Why did baseball fans in the first half of the 20th century feel the need to wear hats?

Research revealed that the individual most responsible for meeting – and perhaps creating   the haberdashery demands of that bygone baseball era was a native Philadelphian.

Born here in 1875, Albert  J. Warner was a clothing salesman when in the early 1900s he opened his first “Truly Warner” hat store  in New York.

He assumed the odd first name because that was how he signed correspondence – “Truly, Warner” – and because it differentiated him  from another noted Philadelphian – Albert Warner of Warner Bros. movie fame.

Warner quickly became the head honcho. By the 1930s, he had 50 shops throughout America. He claimed a Philadelphia location – 1307 Market St., beneath Allinger’s pool hall – was “the largest hat store in the world.”  That prime site, directly opposite Wanamaker’s, proved wildly successful.

According to The American Hatter magazine, on one day – May 7, 1923 – 14,985 straw hats were sold there. Later, in a three-month stretch of 1929, the same shop moved 66,626 hats.

His hats were well-made knockoffs of popular styles – “Style-Twins,” he  dubbed them. In the 1920s, they sold for less than department-store brands, typically between $2.25 and $3.75.

A marketing genius, the diminutive Warner was among the first to recognize sports’ enormous potential to move merchandise. Since men loved sports and wore hats, Warner decided to combine the affinities in his assault.

“The difference between a Truly Warner [hat] and the average hat is as the difference between a college baseball game and a choose-up on the back lot,” read a typical early ad.

His “Truly Warner Sports Period” was a popular nightly radio show on Philadelphia’s WELK.  Splashy newspaper ads appeared almost daily on the sports pages. And he knew the value of athlete endorsements.

One Inquirer ad, from just before the October 1929 stock-market crash, included photographs of six Philadelphia Athletics stars in various Truly Warner styles.

“The House of Mack visits the Home of Truly Warner, 1307 Market Street, and selects their new Fall Bonnets,” read the accompanying copy.

Warner also conducted handicapping contests – hats were awarded to anyone who could pick all the winners on a night’s fight card. (Joe Harris, a Daily News handicapper for decades, was an early winner.)

One baseball season, he promised free hats – a style that sold for $2.85 – to any major-leaguer who finished the season with a batting average at or above that number.

But his greatest campaign involved sports’ greatest name, Babe Ruth.

Warner had latched onto the Yankees slugger in  1921, when Ruth set a home-run record with 59. “Business is good with Babe Ruth,” read one of the first-person ads he favored, “and Business is good with me.”

On Sept. 26, 1927, Ruth tied his mark by hitting homers 58 and 59.  The following day at Yankee Stadium, Warner paid vendors to inform  the 10,000 fans that if Ruth were to hit a record 60th, he’d pay $100 for the ball.

Hearing the offer, Joe Forner, a 40-year-old Bronx trucker, moved into the right-field bleachers. When Ruth struck his record-setting blast, Forner caught it. Afterward, he took the ball to the clubhouse, where the Yankee star not only signed it but added the date and achievement. Then Forner exchanged it for Warner’s cash.

Sometime earlier, the hatter had purchased – for a record price of $750 – another ball that had been signed by then-President Harding, Christy Mathewson ,and other luminaries during the Giants pitcher’s 1921 Polo Grounds farewell.

Within days of Ruth’s 60th, both balls went into the window of Warner’s flagship shop on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Several people were injured in the crush to view them.  In Philadelphia and elsewhere, large photographs of the historic balls were displayed in his store windows.  Throughout Warner’s chain, record-setting sales were reported.

The Warner family held onto the Ruth ball until the late 1940s, when it was given to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2011, the Mathewson ball sold for $37,500 at a New Jersey auction.

Warner died at 73 in 1948. The last Inquirer advertisement mentioning his stores appeared that same year, a two-line help-wanted notice for a “girl cashier.”

By then, tastes were changing, though, apparently, my mother failed to notice.

In 1960, my friends and I rarely wore baseball caps and never fedoras. But there I am, in an Easter photo from that year, looking absolutely miserable as I posed outside my grandmother’s Lawrence Street rowhouse. The reason for my displeasure sat like an albatross atop my head, one of those wide-brimmed, broad-banded fedoras Frank Sinatra crooned in.

I’m not sure how she talked me into posing in it. Maybe she enlisted my father’s aid or perhaps she promised to take me to a Phillies game, where my awful hat might have felt more at home.

All I know is, I never wore it again. And even Warner himself couldn’t have sold me one.

Truly.