In 1877, in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, just blocks away from where I would one day attend high school, police officer John McDowell became the first member of the NYPD to take a bullet in the line of duty when he tried to stop a liquor store from being robbed.
After recovering from his wounds, McDowell was awarded a medal of valor from the city. The medal, made from sterling silver and designed by Louis B. Tiffany, featured an emblem no one had ever seen before; an interlocking ‘N’ and ‘Y’.
Nearly a century and a half later, the Yankees logo is a powerful symbol of identity for millions of New Yorkers despite the city’s ethnic, social, and economic diversity. The logo has become synonymous not only with the city itself, but with fashion and culture on a global scale. Here’s how the logo made such a splash.
(Image: Getty, Al Bello)
The Yankees are one of the most successful franchises in sports, winning the most World Series titles in the history of Major League Baseball with 27. The Cardinals have the second most titles at 11. The dominance of the team has to be discussed when talking about the journey of the Yankee logo and how it gained the cultural significance it boasts today. The Cowboys may be “America’s Team”, but the Yanks, undisputedly, are New York’s; and, no offense to America, but that might mean a little more.
Today, the biggest names in fashion have tapped into the power of the interlocking N and Y; from New York streetwear staples like Supreme, Aime Leon Dore, and Kith to designer juggernauts like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, slap a Yankee logo on a shirt, it’ll sell. This phenomenon can be observed much more simply: through merchandise sales. The Yankees sell more fan apparel than any other sports team in the world and brought in 363 million dollars off of merchandise alone in 2020.
(Gucci FW18 Show, Getty) (Tyshawn Jones for Supreme)
“Michele’s seal of approval could cause the Yankee cap to have its own fashion renaissance,” said Douglass Greenwood, fashion writer for Highsnobiety. “Stepping out of the shadows to become a truly coveted piece once again.”
“People want to identify with the Yankees,” said Bill Francis, a senior researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “they’re known around the world.”
The logo made big strides into popular culture in 1996.
“Spike Lee called and asked us to make him the Yankees baseball cap in red,” said Chris Koch, the CEO of New Era, in an interview with Esquire. “That moment started the fashion and street culture side of our business. It changed the way the world looked at headwear.”
(Spike Lee in 1996. )
Before Spike’s personalized fitted ballcap, New Era had been making hats for Major League Baseball since 1920.
“It shielded players’ eyes from the sun, kept sweat off their brows, and showed which team they were on. But it was never a fashion statement.”
“Of course, Spike’s red cap was coming at an opportune time,” said Samuel Trotman, admin of the popular Instagram account @samutaro, a page that examines the many narratives of art, fashion and culture. “After more than a decade of middling baseball, the Yankees emerged in the mid-90s as one of the league's most dominant teams.”
Today, the profoundness of Spike’s request can be seen everywhere, as now, Yankee caps can be purchased in almost any color. The Yankee fitted has arrived as a staple piece of streetwear’s well balanced uniform, as noticeable as a clean pair of sneakers or a timeless pair of denim.
Spike may have been the first cultural icon to don the woolen crown of New York City, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Names like the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z are representative of New York hip-hop music, and they too, have made the Yankee logo a symbol of their unique styles.
(Image: The Wu-Tang Clan on the Cover of XXL Magazine, October 2000)
(Image: Jay-Z at a Yankees game in 2007, Al Bello, Getty)
“Shit,” Jay-Z once said. “I made the Yankee hat more famous than any Yankee name.”
The significance of the Yankee logo in rap music, specifically with the fitted hat, may tie into grander themes of cultural ties between sports and music.
“Rappers wanna be ballers, and ballers wanna be rappers,” said hip hop musician Lil Wayne. “Sports and music are connected by youth. Music is youth, sports is youth.”
The sentiment that “rappers wanna be ballers” (and vice versa) hints to a hyper specific connection between hip hop and basketball. Wayne isn’t saying musicians want to be athletes, he’s saying rappers want to play basketball. Lebron wants to be Jay-Z, Jay-Z wants to be Lebron.
While other sports stars and teams have found opportunities to tap into the extreme popularity of rap music, let’s think about the intersections that have been made between hip hop and basketball and why those are different. Think about Air Jordan’s, think about Nike, Adidas, and Converse, about Travis Scott at Rocket games,
or Meek Mill ringing the victory bell at Wells Fargo Arena. What kinds of music do they play at NBA games? Do they play the same music at baseball games?
The connection between sports and the rest of pop culture (music, fashion, etc) exists, but as discussed, it isn’t unique to baseball. In fact, it seems another sport may carry more weight in connection to pop culture. So what is it about the Yankees hat, the Yankees as a team, or the logo in general, that separates it as an icon in the mainstream?
“A lot of the work you see today began being about the streets, the textures of New York,” said Brooklyn based artist Tyrrell Winston. “There’s this idea of embedded history. Embedded history runs through all my work.”
(Artwork by Kimou Meyer, creative director at Jordan Brand)
Winston, who has garnered praise for his creative
repurposing of basketballs and cigarettes found on the streets of New York, teased fans on Instagram with photos of his next project, individually stretched canvases that come together to show an interlocking N and Y.
(Tyrrell Winston in his Brooklyn studio, photo by Slam Magazine)
“Each small Yankee panel takes between 5 and 6 hours to stretch,” said Winston on Instagram. “People have asked me ‘why not just paint on top of the CNC’d panel?’ Well, without canvas it just seems less painterly to me.”
(Photos from @tyrrellwinston Instagram)
The significance of the logo has worked its way, it seems, through the vast universes of fashion and music, but has now arrived in a brand new space: the world of contemporary art. Artists like Tyrrell Winston have made a career harnessing the beauty and intricacies of the city, and that may give us insight into the power of the logo. Those interlocking letters don’t represent a team, or an entity that is solely related to sport, they represent an entire city. The city.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) boasts one of the most famous galleries in the world; each year, millions flock to New York to view astonishing works such as Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ or Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night”. MoMA has planted seeds in the fashion world before, most notably when they collaborated with designer Virgil Abloh on the Nike Air Force One.
MoMA is another powerful entity that understands the value of the Yankee logo, it’s history, and its inescapability from influencing culture. In November 2017, MoMA launched
the exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”, a collection that explores 111 of the most important garments and accessories that defined the 20th and 21st centuries and highlights those that still resonate today. Among them were the pearl necklace, the Levi’s 501 jean, the white T-shirt, the Champion hoodie, and of course, the Yankee fitted.
(Yankee caps were once available on the MoMA store’s online site)
"The exhibit epitomizes what has been essential to our culture," said Chay Costello, associate director of merchandising at MoMA, in a 2017 interview about the exhibit. "We always look for opportunities to engage with the community around an exhibition. This is a very different type of show; how could we share it with the public?"
“Because of its cultural constancy, the New York Yankees cap is one of the most recognizable pieces of the exhibit,” said Esquire writer Christine Flammia. “Its presence illuminates how deeply the baseball cap is ingrained in everyday fashion; it’s hard to imagine there was a world where it didn't exist.”
A symbol like the Yankee logo, just two letters, can only carry so much weight on its own. But everything it touches seems to blossom; from being sanctioned into cultural relevance by film legends like Spike Lee, to being blasted into major popularity by Hip-Hop ambassadors like Jay-Z and high fashion brands like Gucci, to being the focus of modern art, the Yankee logo has resembled many things for many different people, and has navigated pop culture in a way we’ve never seen before.
Whether you enjoy watching baseball, listening to hip-hop, critiquing the brash decisions of high-fashion designers or assessing the nuances of modern art, the Yankees logo has made its way into your life. It’d be impossible for any of us to imagine a world in which it didn’t exist.
(Nelson Mandela in 1990. Image: Jeff Markowitz, AP)
(@48ren on Instagram)