The Holy Grail of Deadstock 1990s Sports Team Hats Has Been Discovered

The motherlode of vintage headwear just hit eBay

December 7, 2020 8:06 am
The Motherlode of Vintage Headwear Hits Ebay
The Motherlode of Vintage Headwear Hits Ebay
eBay User 5fivebitz

The grail of vintage sports headwear has always been the Sports Specialties cap. Simple, elegant, usually logo-free and easy to match thanks to their bold colors and subtle script, the Sports Specialties snapback — what you’re currently picturing on a young Ice Cube or Dr. Dre — are peak street culture nostalgia, a rare product of early-’90s design that has proved timeless. They also stopped making them in 1995.

Naturally, there aren’t too many left in circulation in 2020, though one could always find a few for sale on eBay. Still, you never had many options at any given time — until now.

A seller is in the process of dumping a once-in-a-lifetime collection of Sports Specialties hats in near-perfect condition onto the site, selling the bulk of them for around $600 apiece. The seller has only created listings for a little more than 100 hats so far, of a collection of 1,500. The first wave already produces a feeling best described as “hot face emoji”; it is the gaping jaws of the sports apparel collector’s ultimate thirst trap.

MC Ren with DJ Train, wearing a Kings Sports Specialties hat in 1992.
MC Ren, DJ Train and a LA Kings Sports Specialties hat in 1992.
Getty Images

“I saw a Lakers purple corduroy for 650 [dollars], and that’s when my eyeballs popped out of the sockets,” says Max Nelson, the owner of 17 Sports Specialties caps, which he’s been collecting since he was in seventh grade. “I’ve been waiting for this moment.”

In 2018, Nelson founded Hood, a company that makes custom caps with your hometown’s name printed on it in the Sports Specialties script, format and medium, a 100-percent wool snapback. What has given the Sports Specialties hats their lasting appeal, Nelson says, begins with their classic design — an ineffable, not-quite-print, not-quite-cursive script on strong, solid colors — but is enhanced by the particular era they recall. From the mid-‘80s to early-‘90s, when the caps were flying off the shelves at Champs Sports and Foot Locker, a new wave of cool was dominating the popular imagination. Nelson lists Michael Jordan, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys as a few lead characters, as well as the posthumous resurgence of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“To me, the Sports Specialties caps’ script represents a special moment in time, when there was this confluence of music, fashion, art and sports,” he tells InsideHook. “That moment accelerated the evolution of streetwear culture into the mainstream, as we know it today. The script represents the best of yesterday, the best of that moment.”

Vintage Miami Wynwood
The Hood’s take on an icon

The provenance of this new treasure trove of hats, related to me by the seller, eBay user 5fivebitz, sounds apocryphal. The merchandise’s original owner was a big-game completist — think: a spiritual ancestor of Marlins Man, though almost certainly a less obnoxious version. “The gentleman traveled to every Super Bowl, every Final Four, every World Series” and picked up a hat at every event, the seller told me in a message on the platform.

But circumstances caused him to leave his collection with a friend, the seller went on. “Unfortunately his parents got in a car accident and he was taking care of them and stored them at this [lady’s] house, who I bought them from.” After 15 years, she finally needed them out of the way.

So, having stumbled upon a goldmine at a four-family rummage sale, 5fivebitz spent hours picking through the superfan’s life achievement. There are zeitgeist-y ones, like the Temple Owls hat Jay-Z was known to wear and the Seattle Seahawks piece associated with Eazy-E, and ones you never thought to want, like a TCU Horned Frogs snap that for some reason is listed for $1,250. Something for everyone to look at, if not buy.

Some of the stuff has historical value, too. Among the treasures he came away with are a pair of hats for the Milwaukee Does, the first women’s professional basketball team, which was founded in 1979. “I have two hats from home and away of those in mint condition,” 5fivebitz says. “You will never find hats like these in the shape [they’re] in.”

The seller, who is based in Allenton, Wisconsin, says the collection he bought that day — which also contained jerseys, jackets and other apparel — included more than 1,500 hats. Even if only a third of those are Sports Specialties (so far they make up about 90 percent of his listings), the mere existence of a collection this size is astonishing, let alone hitting the open market all at once. Having sold three hats so far at an average of around $500, the seller grossing half a million dollars on the hats might be a conservative estimate.

The enduring popularity of Sports Specialties hats may speak to the difficulty the headwear industry has had in replicating it. Sports Specialties was the first apparel company to receive a pro sports merchandising license, and until it was bought by Nike in 1992, was run by the same family that founded it in 1928. That’s not to say it was a small firm — the year it was acquired, the brand did $70 million in sales. But as soon as Sports Specialties got folded into Nike, the hats got worse, and it only took a couple years for them to fade away entirely.

This was back in the day when mom-and-pop operations could afford licenses — when there was an entrepreneurial middle class, to be sure, and when sports leagues were eager to build their audiences and didn’t mind flooding the market with apparel from different companies. Today, those licenses are cost prohibitive like buying an airplane is. Someone seeking an NFL apparel license needs to guarantee the NFL $100,000 in annual royalties just to get started.

So we’re stuck with the last Sports Specialties, and the latest, biggest trove of their iconic hats, to remind us of what it was like back then: the confluence of sports and fashion and music in a world where we could get all of it in a hat you could pick up at the mall for $17.99.

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