Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Humble Helmet

Hey, it only seems like common sense that when you're 60' from someone firing a 90 MPH hardball at you, a helmet is a pretty cool thing to have covering your noodle. But like most athletes, baseball players would rather risk injury than lose even a split second's edge in competition.

History is a little misty about the first player that decided to protect his money maker and put more than a piece of cloth between his noggin and the ball.

Inventor Frank Mogridge made the first crude attempt at protective gear in 1905. He came up with something that looked like an inflatable boxing glove that wrapped around the hitter’s head. The A.J. Reach Company of Philadelphia sold it for $5. Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan experimented with it, and did him one better.

He developed a leather batting helmet in 1908 after he was severely injured by a beaning. He's considered the papa of batting helmets, although the other players snickered at the very thought of wearing one. Bresnahan, a catcher for the New York Giants, is also credited with inventing and using shinguards. Smart guy, hey?

Despite the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman by Carl Mays in 1920, batting helmets were not made mandatory in Major League Baseball until decades down the road.

According to The Way Baseball Works by Dan Gutman, Willie Wells of the 1942 Newark Eagles of the Negro National League was the first player to wear a helmet during a regular season game. It looked much like a blue collar hardhat.

But others say that the first time players wore protective headgear came during a spring training game on March 7, 1941, and continued on through the years. Pee Wee Reese and Ducky Medwick of the Dodgers wore a plastic insert after being beaned in 1940 and missing weeks of playing time.

The headpiece was designed by Johns Hopkins brain surgeon Walter Dandy, at the request of GM Larry McPhail. Those helmets were based on jockeys' hats, and were just a normal baseball cap with curved hard plastic shells slipped into a zippered compartment.

Regardless who started the idea, the first true helmet was developed by Charlie Muse at the behest of Pirate GM Branch Rickey. Muse was an executive with the club, and Rickey asked him to design and create a helmet that would protect the players' heads.

Muse was appointed president of Rickey’s American Cap Company, and came up with the first modern-day helmet, based on a miner's hardhat. Of, course, Rickey's company produced and sold them. Just a bit of serendipity, we're sure.

In 1952, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first major league team to permanently adopt batting helmets. And Rickey was serious about it. The Pirates were ordered to wear the helmets both at bat and in the field, though thankfully that idea only lasted a couple of seasons before the fielders could leave them in the dugout.

At first, the Bucs weren't too crazy about them, and the fans got a hoot out of them too, bouncing marbles off the players' plastic headgear. But one play that year turned many players' attitudes around.

A helmeted Paul Pettit, pinch-running for the Pirates against the Cubs, was speeding toward second base to break up a DP when the shortstop's bullet relay hit him squarely in the head. "All it did was dent the helmet, and he stayed in the game," recalled Joe Garagiola, talking to SI. "Made believers out of everybody."

They became mandatory in MLB in 1971. However, they had been in use for several years before the rule. In the 1950s and 1960s, many players batted without outer helmets, but used the Dodger-style plastic inserts inside their baseball caps.

After 1971, players who were grandfathered could still choose whether or not they wanted to use a helmet. Some players, like Norm Cash and Bob Montgomery, hit without a helmet throughout their playing careers. Montgomery was the last of the helmetless dinosaurs, retiring in 1979.

Although helmets with earflaps were common in amateur sports, they were slow to gain popularity at the professional level.

Earl Battey of the Minnesota Twins developed the first helmet with an ear flap. Cub third baseman Ron Santo gets the credit for donning the first earflap helmet at the major league level, after having his left cheekbone fractured by a pitch in 1966.

BoSox Tony Conigliaro had his career cut short in August of 1967, when Jack Hamilton beaned him with an inside heater (Tony C was noted for crowding the dish, and Hamilton was a wild child that walked almost as many batters - 348 in 611-2/3 innings - as he struck out in his career; it was an accident waiting to happen.)

The pitch hit him flush on the cheek just below the left eye. If his batting helmet had an earflap, he might have been spared from serious injury. Still, the macho attitude continued unabated.

The idea of earflaps was accepted by the players reluctantly. Some batters felt that catching a glimpse of the earflap out of the corner of an eye was distracting. But in 1983, it was made mandatory for new players to use a helmet with at least one ear flap.

Grandfathered players could elect to wear a helmet without ear flaps. Tim Raines was the last player to wear an old-timey helmet until he retired in the 2002 season. His flapless Florida Marlins helmet is currently on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame with other relics of baseball's Stone Ages.

Gary Gaetti, who retired in 2000, and Ozzie Smith, who retired in 1996, also wore helmets without flaps to the end. Julio Franco was the last player eligible to wear a helmet without flaps, although he's worn a helmet with one throughout his career - and it's been a pretty long and healthy one.

MLB bat and ball boys/girls are required to wear a helmet while on the field of play. Some catchers also continue to use the no-flap helmet, wearing it backwards along with their mask, but it looks like the hockey-style mask will eventually render the old school backstopping gear obsolete.

After the 2007 death of Tulsa Drillers first base coach Mike Coolbaugh, the old-timers coaching the bases were added to the list of protected species.

The Oakland A's Rene Lachemann decided to wear a helmet out to his third base coaching position for the remainder of the 2007 season after Coolbaugh's death. This year, MLB made it mandatory for coaches to wear helmets while in the box.

Some, like the Dodger's Larry Bowa, kicked and screamed about it, but if it's good enough for the players, the league felt it was good enough for them, too.

Hey, baseball players may be hard-headed, but...

EDIT - since we've posted this, Rawlings has introduced its S-100 helmet, a somewhat bulkier headpiece that's supposed to absorb pitches up to 100 MPH. MLB teams were given a half dozen of the new helmets in late 2009, and their use will become mandatory in the minor leagues beginning in 2010.


Anonymous said...

It was Jack Hamilton who beaned Tony Conigliaro in 1967. And if you're going to say "in Hamilton's defense, Tony C was noted for crowding the dish," then be fair and note that Hamilton was suspected of throwing spitballs before that pitch came up and in on Conigliaro.

Ron Ieraci said...

Thanks for the note. I can't believe I let Hamilton's name get by me. I updated the post a little after looking up Hamilton's stats; his control was less than sparkling.

He beaned 13 batters in 218 games over his career, and only two in 1967, when he pitched 150+ innings.