In Hamburg, New York, near the banks of Lake Erie, there is a lady in a house with 30,000 hats. The driveway garage alone holds mountains of caps, nestled a dozen apiece in boxes stacked to the ceiling like Tetris pieces. The scene repeats in a second garage, and again in a 1969 Dodge camper that sits on the lawn. There are whispers of a second-floor room packed with hats too, though few are permitted inside the house on Big Tree Road to confirm.
Each hat belongs to Hamburg-native Gladys Ball. Known as “the Hat Lady” to many, Ball accumulated her collection over a career buying hats from the New Era factory in nearby Derby and selling them at markets throughout Western New York. “I just like hats,” the 82-year old says. “Selling them keeps me thinking.”
The hats are everything but new. They are fitted and adjusted, cotton, nylon, and even corduroy. They span industries, decades, and prominence. The stately navy-and-white logo of the New York Yankees rests alongside the likes of the Glendale Desert Dogs from the far-flung Arizona Fall League.
Many harken to past eras, years when Montreal was a baseball city, Charlotte had a cartoonish Hornet mascot and the San Diego Padres played in “Taco Bell Hats,” a named earned from the cap’s front yellow panel resemblance to the fast-food chain’s signature look.
Though Ball has never advertised, word of her desirable inventory continues to grow. Adjustable hats sell for $10 and most fitted hats go for $20, though their rarity could demand a price tag of $60 or higher. Apparel companies from California and Boston who have learned about Ball’s vintage collection have spent thousands of dollars during recent trips to the house. “She has hats like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like hat heaven,” says Luis Enrique-Yanez owner of Town Bizzness in Oakland who estimates he has spent $8500 supplying his business with Ball’s caps. “They are new, mint-condition, but you could tell they are so old when you have them in your hands.”
Still, most who call or knock on her door are locals who learned of the Hat Lady by word-of-mouth.
Ball greets new customers tentatively, as if gauging their intentions for coming by her garage. A customer may ask for a certain hat, and Ball, with no written inventory, will drift back into the shelves, knowing precisely where to look. Major league sports teams are the most requested, but she has hats from the minor leagues, major colleges, smaller schools, defunct leagues like the Negro Leagues and Hawaiian Winter Leagues, bands, commemorative caps, and hats promoting S&P 500 companies like Apple. If you need a Chattanooga Mocs hat, well, there is only one reliable source in Greater Buffalo. Same goes for locating hats of the minor-league Reading Phillies, Scottsdale Scorpions, and Jonestown Chiefs, a hockey team that left the Pennsylvania town of 20,000 for Greenville, South Carolina in 2010.
The garage is off-limits to regular customers. A front display hanging above white lawn chairs serves to barricade patron from merchandise. “You can more or less tell when they open their mouths how someone will act,” Balls says. “But they don’t get into the garage. Even if they’re nice.”
Ball sold her first hat in 1981, shortly after she and her husband Clifford sold Red Top Hot Dogs, the restaurant they had and operated since the early 1960’s. Gladys and Clifford lived on the same street as teenagers and married soon after high school. They bought Red Top and ran the community staple for two decades. While Gladys wanted to maintain the restaurant after the last of their four children moved out, Clifford got a new business idea from one of Red Top’s most high-profile and loyal customers.
"I just like hats."
David Koch, then CEO of New Era, the local sports apparel company, ate at Red Top nearly every day. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, the Balls provided one of the wealthiest men in Buffalo with countless hot dogs, always served with an extra cup of pickles and Koch’s preferred Orange soda. Mrs. Ball and Koch were classmates at Kensington High School and a strong friendship bloomed. “We enjoyed each other. Dave was a really nice guy.”
“Dave kept saying, “Sell my hats. Sell my hats,” Ball says. While she wanted to keep running the restaurant, her husband sided with the CEO. Soon, Mr. and Mrs. Ball ditched hot dogs and began filling their used-Cadillac with hats bought directly from New Era’s factory in Derby, NY. The Balls had no control over which hats the New Era representatives sold them. The company frequently produced small runs of a certain design, called sample hats, to gauge public interest. The result was the Ball’s truly unique portfolio of caps. They sold at the Hamburg Fair and the Walden Flea Market. Within two years, Ball Caps, as their company was named, was selling hundreds of hats a year and their house was brimming with supply. What was supposed to be their retirement hobby became much more. They began selling outside Rich Stadium (Now New Era Field) on game days and traveled to Miami to peddle hats at the Super Bowl. “We had sold out of hats when someone came up and asked if we had anymore. So I sold her the one on my head,” recalls Ball.
When an aging David Koch relinquished CEO duties to his son in 2000, the Balls ended their trips to the Derby factory. Clifford passed away a few years later and Ms. Ball hasn’t sold a hat outside her home since.
Today the great-grandmother of six takes customers by appointment and people who ring her bell. She typically sells a few hats each week, though she is closed in winter. “We would come here every two months. It was like an event,” says Charlie Welling of Rochester, who began going to the Hat Lady as a sophomore at the University of Buffalo. Ball knows the head sizes of her best customers, like Welling, down to the ¼ inch.
Renowned to the area’s vintage collectors, Ball keeps a low-profile, spending time with her family and admiring the sunsets over Lake Erie from the comfort of her front lawn, cigarette in hand. She has declined several offers to sell her entire stock and plans to bequeath the collection to her son.
Ball’s hats connect people to the past through nostalgia. For Ball, the collection is her own link to the past, to a husband with whom she shared two careers and a lifetime. “The hats remind me of him,” Ms. Ball says of Clifford. “Another reason to have them around.” In a house of thousands of hats, she knows exactly where to find the classic red St. Louis Cardinals box, her late-husband’s favorite team.