Long before Ash Ketchum was a Champion and World Coronation Series quarterfinalist, a wily Mankey caught him slipping, pummeled him into submission, and stole his hat.
Incensed, Ash scrambled up a tree to reclaim it. When Misty asked why he’d risk his life for a snapback, he revealed that it wasn’t just any hat: it was a limited edition official Pokémon League Expo hat.
“I had to send in about a million postcards to win that hat!” he shouted, and like so many warnings from Professor Oak about the appropriateness of fishing in the Silph Co. lobby, his words came to echo in my ears — because boy, is it a pain to get that hat in real life too.
The legend unfolds
Like any grade-schooler with an age-appropriate ignorance of the stigma that would one day come from wearing clothing associated with children’s programming, I wanted Ash’s hat. Nowadays, I cling to such iconography to bury feelings of emptiness beneath a false sense of nostalgia for lives I never lived in universes that don’t exist. Back then, though, I just thought it was a cool hat and wouldn’t have minded having one.
And yet, despite Pokémon being a worldwide multimedia smash dominating the minds and lives of everyone from its intended Y7 audience to paranoid televangelists, I couldn’t find a single Expo hat. Not in dedicated Pokémon sections of stores like Toys “R” Us, not in generic retail outposts of the era like Kmart or Sears where you could’ve run into one on an unrelated errand, and not even at the nameless mall kiosks that have since moved on from bootleg minifigures to eyebrow threading.
The rise of Pokémon predated online commerce and research as we understand them today — this was a time when people were afraid their computers couldn’t count to 2,000. If something wasn’t available in the shopping center staples indigenous to your area, you had to ask around, and there was simply no one to ask where exactly to find this hat. If Serebii.net existed, it was still gestating on GeoCities; Pojo’s site mostly specialized in cards, and might still have been months from emerging at all; and word of mouth among parents probably wasn’t much use when we were all living in the “Pokémon According to my Dad” meme.
But at last, in the summer of ’99, a wild Ash hat appeared.
My contention is that I found it in a gift shop on Long Beach Island. My mom thinks she had a client of hers bring it back from Tokyo. At this point, I’d believe it was neither, or a mix. It’s Schrödinger’s hat, the truth of its origins locked in a Mystery Gift box that fell from the stars.
It was a strapback rather than a snapback, the oversized green “L” had a dark border around it, and the back of the hat prominently featured a Pokémon: Gotta Catch ‘em All logo complete with two trademark symbols. Not a perfect match to the one in the show, but to a young trainer, it was a thing of beauty. I wore it constantly — my forehead ever red from the strap and dented from the metal cap buckle. After all, it’s a hat you wear backwards when you mean business, and I have long been a serious kind of guy.
Sometime after bending the brim to a point of no return and allowing the white of the hat to turn a blotchy tan from exposure to recess dirt, I stopped wearing it. The way I’ve lived my life in the ensuing twenty-ish years tells me it wasn’t because I was ashamed to rep the Indigo League in public. Still, the Expo hat wound up hanging from a nail in my room, then sitting on a shelf, and finally, tucked in a drawer behind two different Rutgers fitteds I’d had embroidered with part of my then rap name (Ash hat, good, “Chaz” hats… less so).
Once Ash realized he was allowed to change his clothes as of the Advanced Generation series, my definition of an “Ash hat” stopped matching reality, and the already elusive hat was no longer relevant to the Pokémon brand. Far from old enough to yet hold any value to The Pokémon Company as nostalgia bait, the classic cap vanished — but not from my mind.
You received the Ash Hat from Pikachu
Sometime between high school and early college, I took matters into my own hands, trying to master drawing curves in Illustrator so I could recreate that green “L” — partly for myself, and partly to sell Pokémon hats on a merch platform whose name rhymes with Salazzle.
No dice. It didn’t survive the design review process. Naturally, Ash hats were in the same gray area as smartphone Game Boy emulators: objectively good things that Nintendo refused to make, but wouldn’t let anyone else make either.
I gave up. I kept playing the games, reading scans of the Adventures manga online, and outlining fanfics I’d never get around to writing, but my Ash hat dreams were in the rearview. And then, on October 28th, 2017 — I literally saw one behind me.
While in line to impulsively buy a Switch at my local GameStop, I noticed a familiar mix of red and white out of the corner of my eye. On the floor across from the counter, perhaps too bulky to fit on the shelf above, sat a 16” Pikachu plush — with a fucking Ash hat on its head.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I beelined for the Kanto Trainer Hat Pikachu Poké Plush and grabbed it. Was this a prank? Did they hide this hat from the world for over fifteen years only to release it in Build-A-Bear size? This seemed like it would fit a cool adult, but it was sewn to the plush, so I couldn’t be sure. I checked the price: a whopping $49.99 before tax. Fuck it, as long as I was already balling out and buying a Switch purely to play Smash and Mario Kart by myself, I wasn’t about to let this hat get away.
Once I was home, I snipped the hat free of Pikachu’s head and put it on. It was human-sized after all. Some googling confirmed I wasn’t an insane person scalping a stuffed animal — the Pokémon Center product photos showed an adult woman wearing the hat in question.
Left with no clue what to do with the Pikachu after harvesting its hat, I opted to continue my long streak of being a mediocre pal by shipping it across the country to a friend as a belated birthday present.
Old hat, New Era
The novelty of achieving my childhood goal once again wore off faster than before — and not just because the “L” was too bright a green or the brim was too smooth and had this weird ridge thing around the edge like a bumper phone case. The truth was, my aforementioned foray into rapping had brought with it some distinct influences on my fashion sense. Some lasting ones, like an interest in New Era fitteds, and some thankfully more fleeting, like bedazzled skulls and culturally appropriating keffiyehs. Ash hat number two was solid, but it wasn’t a flat brim hat I could wear not-quite-all-the-way-backwards, and my dream of an Ash hat had evolved with my tastes into a dream of an Ash New Era 59FIFTY fitted.
I’d checked the Pokémon Center site now and then for such a thing to no avail. Pokémon’s 20th anniversary had come and gone the year before — an ideal time to collaborate with New Era in my book — but there was no fitted, and none in the three years that would follow. But in the summer of 2019, another 20th came to pass: twenty years since I’d first come across an Ash hat in real life. And as if in celebration of that platinum anniversary and the serendipity that’s defined my relationship with these goddamn hats — I somehow stumbled across the information that a New Era Expo hat did exist after all… in Japan.
No, I didn’t fly there to get it. I’m obsessive, but I’ve never been the world traveler Ash is. So I went to the second best place to get anything — eBay.
As soon as the results loaded, I was off and running. Multiple sellers, promising pics — great reminders that I wasn’t in the dial-up wasteland of yesteryear, or limited to tri-state brick-and-mortar maybes. I narrowed my search to a few listings, and on July 5th, 2019, I pulled the trigger.
My order was confirmed! Fuck yes. For two days, I rode high on the thought that I was about to finally get an Ash hat I thought I’d made up.
Huh? New message from seller?
On July 7th, the seller explained that the hat they’d received from their supplier was in rough shape. Would I mind waiting a few days while they got a replacement? Sure. Having been something of an eBay merchant myself on occasion, I try to give most sellers the benefit of the doubt and respect when they make the effort to not send me janky —
Canceled? No. No, no, no…
July 9th. The manufacturer says the hat is out of stock. Would I be interested in a similar item? Buddy, you have no idea.
I scrambled to place an order from another seller. Canceled, pretty much immediately.
The fitted and I were locked in a Kanto Safari Zone dance. Do I throw a rock and submit a best offer somewhere? Or go with bait — paying more than I wanted only to risk more disappointment? Another sketchy order like the last two and PayPal might lock my account.
The red HP sound was blaring all around me.
I was whiting out.
Arceus help me.
Offer accepted! For $24.99 below asking. Salute, past me.
July 11th, shipped. July 20th, delivered. I opened the box, and there it was. The best quality hat of the three. Yeah, the “L” was huge, and the Poké Ball symbol on the back was a little redundant — but I’d done it. Twenty years of dreaming had become a glorious red and white tulpa in my hands. I put it on. It even fit well two-thirds backwards — after all, it’s a hat you wear backwards when you mean business, and I am a two-thirds serious kind of guy.
It’s now in the drawer with the other two.
It’s not the hat, it’s the principle
I don’t regret my purchases over the years, but what I do regret is how much time and effort I spent pursuing these fucking hats because The Pokémon Company didn’t have the common sense and/or decency to cater to one of the most obvious possible whims of the Pokémon fandom. How many wonky “L” shapes have we all seen on Ash trucker hats at cons over the years? Why should any of us be settling for subpar, half-assed knockoffs when The Pokémon Company is perfectly capable of dropping official merch?
Maybe it’s part of TPC’s history of misreading its audience. The Gen 5 games sold poorly — the focus on story and character depth must have been the problem, not all the Gen 1 clones added in at the expense of familiar mons.
Or maybe it’s part of a broader lack of first-party replicas and cosplay items. Power Rangers was pretty bad about that until 2013 — so much so that the most (in)famous source for helmets that weren’t just plastic masks with eye holes has long been Aniki Cosplay, an Indonesia-based prop maker whose turnaround for handmade, custom products has been variously stated to be somewhere between several months to four years or more. Aniki even got a licensing deal in 2018 from Saban, the longtime on-and-off owner of Power Rangers — so it’s clear Saban knew this market existed, but refrained from acting on that knowledge until an independent manufacturer built up over a decade of experience in the space.
All I know is that there’s a case to be made that Ash’s OG hat is arguably the piece of pop culture headwear for a certain generation — right between Indy’s fedora and the MCU Iron Man helmet — and should not be as rare as it is. Ash doesn’t wear the hat anymore, you might say. So? Anakin Skywalker’s been dead for almost four decades. I dare you to tell Disney not to drop another Vader helmet.
As long as the Indigo League, Orange Islands, and/or Johto runs of the anime are streaming somewhere, or classic Pokémon movies are being remade in 3D for whatever reason, that hat will remain in the fandom’s consciousness, and should be for sale on Pokémon Center dot com at a reasonable price. By itself. Not sewn to anything else, or riveted to some one-of-a-kind Ketchum coat of arms in the Home Deco section.
At the close of “Primeape Goes Bananas,” the episode in which Ash is mugged by a Mankey, Ash and friends finally see Celadon City — their desired destination from earlier that day. Misty muses that if Mankey hadn’t evolved into Primeape and slid on them, chasing them all for something like twenty miles in the space of half an hour with commercials, they wouldn’t have reached the city nearly as fast. To some, that takeaway might suggest that the journey to claim your ideal hat has some intrinsic value, or at least some unappreciated side benefits. That the real prize was the Primeape we caught along the way.
Ash used Primeape in one tournament and left it in the care of a stranger.
Just sell the hat.