It’s rare for a collection of material objects to accurately reflect the trajectory of someone’s life, but Al Busch’s collection of baseball caps manages to paint a picture.
A trip to Cancun, a stop at a new brewery, a delivery from a construction supplier in the 1980s, seasons spent batting for St. Benedict’s baseball team — all these experiences are documented on the walls of Busch’s barn in Jordan, where more than 1,700 baseball hats cascade down the walls like morning glory vines.
“I was always fond of hats,” Busch said. “When we’d go somewhere and I saw a hat I liked I had to buy it. That was just me. Well, I didn’t have to buy it, but I wanted to buy it.”
Busch started collecting hats around 1970, when he graduated from New Prague High School and began dating his wife, Kate. The collection started out modest, but as time went along Busch started accumulating hats at an exceeding rate. Decades of work in commercial construction meant he constantly received hats from suppliers and contractors. As word began to spread about Busch’s collection he found himself receiving hats in all kinds of ways — sometimes they’d come in bulk, like an inheritance of 300 hats he received from a widow who’d just lost her husband, or from his own brothers’ overflowing collections.
“They do it, too, they collect hats, and when they have no more room for them they send them my way,” Busch said.
As the collection grew, the hats moved out of Busch’s house to the garage, then to another shed, all before taking up residence in the couple’s barn loft.
“We had to move them there because we had no place to store them, they were in boxes and packaged together,” Busch said. “All these hats were stuffed in plastic bags in a big box some place stored away and I thought that’s doing an injustice to them,” he said.
The Buschs renovated the family’s 1930s barn in 2000 and strung Al’s hats up in numbered rows on hand-made hangers. The hats are wrapped in ziplock bags for safekeeping and easy viewing. In 2000, Busch estimated he had about 900 hats. Since then, he’s developed a ledger that logs the location of each hat, with annotations noting which ones he’s taken out of the barn and put in the house to be part of his regular wearing circulation.
Busch said he rotates the hats pretty regularly — Twins hats come out in the spring, Vikings hats come out in the fall. Some hats never come out, they’re just displayed — like a mysterious old cap that reads “Polar America.”
“You ever heard of them?” Busch asks. “I haven’t either!” he laughs and sets it back on display.
Busch estimates he purchased around 75% of the hats, but doesn’t know the value of the collection — perhaps by choice.
“I don’t even want to think about that,” he said.
Kate, who’s been with Al since the collection started, doesn’t mind her husband’s hobby.
“Other people buy spoons, he buys hats ... It doesn’t bother me because it’s not in the house,” Kate joked.
As Busch’s collection nears 2,000 hats, he finds himself becoming more and more selective when purchasing new caps. His criteria is pretty simple, but important.
“It’s got to have a good bill on it so you can form it,” Busch said. “I don’t like buying the ones with plastic in the back. I like the fitted hats and the ones with the (Velcro) strap in the back. And it’s got to have a nice crown on it and have good color.”
Busch doesn’t have a favorite hat, but his collection has some special caps, like a pair of Minnesota Twins World Series hats from 1987 and 1991. He joked that the one thing that’s missing is a Vikings Super Bowl hat. But whether or not Busch will ever get that particular hat remains to be seen. The future of his collection, too, is uncertain.
“I don’t think my kids would want them,” he said. “It’s a lot of one thing. You’ve got to find a unique person to do it.”
In the meantime, Busch will continue to grow his collection. He said he was going to quit years ago when the rows of hats fully circled the barn walls. But that didn’t last long. He started a second lap of staggered rows a short while later.
“I just hate to see people throw stuff away,” Busch said.
Until the ideal heir to his collection shows up, Busch said he’ll continue to add hats and keep an eye out for someone who wants to buy them and “display them like this.”