SI Vault
 
Baseball's First Masked Man
John Hanlon
July 19, 1971
They called it a "rattrap," a "muzzle" and a "birdcage." One sportswriter complained, "There is a great deal of beastly humbug in contrivances to protect men from things which do not happen. There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as there is a mask."
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July 19, 1971

Baseball's First Masked Man

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All this was typical of the day's view that any form of protection in baseball was less than manly, and nothing was more indicative of this attitude than the long delay before catchers got the other "tools of ignorance" that now enfold them. The first chest protector was a pad worn carefully under the blouse to avoid any chiding about it. The first protector worn out in the open was called a sheepskin, probably because that's what it was. John T. Clements of the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union League introduced it around 1884. Harry Decker, who played on several National League teams, introduced the first catcher's mitt around 1890. Roger Bresnahan of the New York Giants was the first to wear shin guards—an adaptation of the kind used by cricket players—in a game at the Polo Grounds in April 1907.

"They sure called me a lot of names when I first put them on," Bresnahan recalled years afterward. "But I guess they were a good idea. They tell me catchers still wear them."

Despite Deacon White's slur, many contemporary catchers came to Thayer asking him to run off one of his masks for them. Before long, he realized he had a pretty hot item in his birdcages, and on Jan. 15, 1878 he filed for the patent on his device, noting in his specifications that "it is not an infrequent occurrence...for a player to be severely injured in the face by a ball thrown against it." Thayer's patent (No. 200,358) was granted.

Three of Thayer's masks still exist, and each is considered the original. Two are in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., one purported to be the first mask ever used and the other said to be the original model of the mask that Thayer submitted with his patent application. The third "original"—since plated with sterling silver—rests in a glass-enclosed cabinet in the reading room of the Harvard Varsity Club in Cambridge. Beside it is a card identifying it as "the first catcher's mask ever used in baseball."

Which one is truly the original? No one is sure, but Fred Thayer and Deacon White would have been astonished that the question ever came up.

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