In 11 seasons behind the plate, catcher Charlie O'Brien had been struggling with an occupational hazard: getting knocked upside the head with errant pitches and foul balls and whacked in the back of the skull by batters finishing their roundhouse swings. Then, last year, while watching a hockey game on television, he had a flash of inspiration: Why not create a catcher's version of a goalie's helmet? O'Brien came up with the idea for a model with a deeper chin and neck protector, a curved cage in front and a hard, molded-plastic plate to protect the back of the head. The design was refined by Jerry Van Velden, of Van Velden Mask Inc., the Ontario, Canada, company that developed and now manufactures the helmet. Today the Toronto Blue Jays catcher swears by his helmet-mask, saying, "When you get hit, the ball just glances off."
So far, only a dozen major league catchers have tried the helmet, which does not require a separate neck shield. Last year O'Brien was the only one to use it in games; this year, several other catchers have started using it.
Such resistance shouldn't be a surprise; the reluctance to adopt any new type of headgear is a baseball tradition. The batting helmet went through nearly 70 years of experiments and modifications before evolving into an utterly unremarkable part of the game. It's hard to imagine a hitter entering the batter's box with just a cap on, but that was the case until the 1940s.
In fact, the first batting helmet, patented by A.J. Reach Co. in 1905, gathered dust for two years until New York Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan was knocked unconscious by a pitch in 1907. When he returned a month later, he stepped to the plate wearing the ungainly Pneumatic Head Protector, as Frank Pierce Mogridge's invention was called. Shaped like an oven mitt, it wrapped around the head and required a teammate to inflate it by blowing into a rubber tube. Bresnahan would eventually make the Hall of Fame, and would even introduce shin guards as protective equipment for catchers, but his headgear never caught on.
Players were beaned over the years, but management didn't become concerned until a tragic event in August 1920. Facing the New York Yankees, the popular Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch from Carl Mays, becoming the only beaning fatality in major league history. After Chapman's death, some baseball owners advocated the use of helmets, but they were reluctant to make it a requirement. Some players experimented with tight-fitting leather headgear similar to models that had recently become mandatory in football. Others tested a helmet lined with cork, which was used by U.S. jockeys. Another invention covered the head like earmuffs. An article in The New York Times that August spelled out the problem: "The various devices invariably meet with some ridicule on the part of players...and from the fans as well." The trick would be to find protective gear that didn't look protective.
In 1940 two key Brooklyn Dodgers were disabled after taking pitches to the head. Rookie shortstop Pee Wee Reese lost an incoming pitch in the white shirts of the fans sitting in the centerfield bleachers at Wrigley Field. "I never thought anyone could hit me in the head," Reese remembers, "but that's what happens if you can't see the ball. I stepped right into it. They took me out on a stretcher, and I was out for 18 days."
Less than three weeks later, outfielder Joe (Ducky) Medwick was also hit in the head. Medwick, the 1937 National League MVP who had driven in at least 100 runners in six straight seasons (1934-39), scored 100 runs each year from 1934 to '38 and hit 40 doubles in seven straight years (1933-39), was never the same hitter.
Dodgers president Larry MacPhail called Dr. Walter Dandy, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and asked him to design a functional helmet that would protect players and also would meet their aesthetic demands. Dandy answered with a hat that looked like a regular uniform cap but featured a zippered pocket on each side into which a batter could slip a slightly curved piece of protective plastic. In a spring exhibition game in 1941, Reese became one of the first major leaguers to play wearing the hat, an event recorded on sports pages across the country. Though they remained optional, the shield-reinforced caps became familiar equipment.
Then, late in the 1952 season, new Pittsburgh Pirates president Branch Rickey mandated hard plastic batting helmets for his team. He was also president of the American Baseball Cap Company, which, perhaps not coincidentally, made helmets. Players complained that the helmets, which were constructed of the same fiberglass and polyester resin used in the bulletproof military gear of the time, were too heavy and that the inner foam rubber soaked up sweat, which, innings later, dripped into batters' eyes, obscuring their vision. To make matters worse, Rickey insisted that his team wear the helmets in the field as well as at bat.
"You could have put a light on the front and gone into a cave," recalls former Pirates catcher Joe Garagiola. Kids sitting behind the bullpen in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field threw marbles at the players' heads. Humiliations aside, by 1955, 14 of the 16 major league teams offered helmets to players, and by the end of the decade helmets with earflaps had been introduced (an advancement that didn't become mandatory until 1974).