When you consider the sport, at the core of its contest, two men are pitted against each other… one hurling a projectile and the other armed with a club, you would think that the concept of somebody, or everybody wanting a helmet would be a “no brainer” (no pun intended). The fact of the matter is that batting helmets have been a comparative late arrival to the sport of baseball.
They began to appear just after the turn of the 20th Century and appeared as something that resembled an “inflatable boxing glove” that was sold by the AJ Reach Company for around $5. Noted experimentalist Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan was said to have given it a try, but the concept did not catch on.
Fast forward a couple of decades to August 16th, 1920 when Ray Chapman was killed in by a pitch to the head delivered by Carl Mayes. What became of this and the fallout? The simple answer was find ways to protect the batter, but the means to achieve this seem to have changed the game in another aspect. In Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns it is offered that “ as soon as the ball got dirty, the umpire had orders to substitute a spotless new one (ball) …” It would appear that this incident was seen to have been caused by the batter’s inability to see the ball coming at his head.
The next couple of decades are still within the period of old school “knock down” baseball, yet no new major league fatalities occur. By the 1940’s a couple of dynamics begin to come into play. Players are becoming more valuable assets to their respective ball clubs and technology advanced as well. On 7 March 1941, Joe Medwick and Pee Wee Reese wore batting helmets in spring training in Cuba. The plastic head guard the Dodgers used in 1941 was designed by a brain surgeon from Johns Hopkins named Walter Dandy. The guards are described as curved plastic shields that fit inside the cloth baseball caps. This trend appears to have continued briefly as there are accounts of on 6 June 1941, the NY Giants wore batting helmets in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over time, I hope to find newspaper pictures of this event, but have yet to do so.
By the 1950s, Branch Rickey was the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates Rickey asked Muse, an executive with the club, to design and create a helmet that would protect the players above the ears. Muse was appointed president of Rickey’s American Cap Company (ABC) and he helped design a helmet that was light yet able to protect a batter’s head. Rickey, the father of the major league “farm club” concept we know today, realized there was great value in growing and protecting your own talent and this may been a driving factor outside of his financial interests at ABC.
During the 1953 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to permanently adopt batting helmets, taking the field wearing rather primitive fiberglass “miner’s caps” at the mandate of general manager Branch Rickey. Rickey’s original edict required the Pirate players had to wear the helmets both at bat and in the field. A Corbis image search of “Pittsburgh Pirates 1953” will bear this out and provide some solid images as well. While this remained for Pirates batters, wear in the field was short lived for any number of reasons. Batting helmets for position players would not appear to make a comeback for at least another decade.
In many instances, players still opted to wear the protective insert under the cap through the 1960s and it was not until 1971 did Major League baseball make them mandatory. After 1971, players who were grandfathered in such as Norm Cash and Bob Montgomery continued to bat without a helmet through the end of their playing careers.
In 1983, it was mandatory for incoming players to use a helmet with at least one ear flap. Players who were grandfathered in could choose to wear a helmet without ear flaps. Players can choose to wear double ear flap helmets in the major leagues, however, this is not mandatory. Gary Gaetti was the last player to wear a helmet without ear flaps, during the 2000 season. Tim Raines and Ozzie Smith were two other players to continue wearing the ear flap-less helmet well into the 1990s before retirement. Technically, as of the 2006 season, there is still one player left with a long enough career in the big leagues and could wear a helmet without flaps: Julio Franco.
Batting helmets have been a means to further see specific personal influences by management as well over the years. Bob Howsam, General Manager for the Cincinnati Reds during the Big Red Machine era, was known for enforcing strict dress and appear standards that included a ban on facial hair and only black cleats, extended this to include batting helmets as well. Ball Boys where instructed to clean the helmets daily with alcohol as well as take those that where chipped or scuffed out of circulation. In addition, once while watching the Reds play a road game on TV, Howsam noticed that Pete Rose had written his number “14” on the back of his helmet to make it easier to find. Howsam called the ball park and instructed Reds Manager Sparky Anderson to get this problem fixed immediately.
Fast forward to this season when according to an article in the St. Louis Business Journal on April 17th 2006:
“Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. Inc. and Major League Baseball announced Monday the introduction of a highly ventilated helmet to be worn by at least seven MLB teams in 2006. The Rawlings Coolflo Batter’s Helmet features new technology and allows for updated paint schemes, will be available to all 30 MLB clubs in 2007. The new helmet utilizes unique air venting technology and features a new high tech design. With 15 individual vents, the helmet allows air to flow through for a more comfortable feel without sacrificing protection. The Rawlings Coolflo will be available in solid team colors or a two-toned “Highlight” version.
The introduction of the Rawlings Coolflo Batter’s Helmet marks the first time since 1983 that players have been able to wear a new batting helmet design. Rawlings has been the exclusive supplier or batting helmets to Major League Baseball since 2003. The Major League Baseball clubs that will be using the Rawlings Coolflo Helmet include the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Mets, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, and Baltimore Orioles. In addition to the Clubs who will be wearing the new Coolflo helmets, individual players also have the option to wear the new design.”
All of this is very interesting and the follow-up to this article will feature a listing of teams and players with respect to what style of batting helmet they are wearing this season. What I would like to do with the rest of this piece is offer some insights on things to look at and look for when looking at batting helmets.
IMAGERY ANALYSIS FOR BATTING HELMETS.
When doing your own imagery analysis on batting helmets, there are a number of things for you to consider. Let me offer this as an initial list of considerations. Please know that since all these variables have changed over time for most teams, a detailed study of them will also enable you to narrow down a time frame for use as well.
Helmet Material: The early batting helmets were manufactured out of a form of fiberglass. These helmets have a very rough appearance. By the early 1960’s, plastics begin to enter the market.
Logo Appliqué: Take note of the depth of the logo. This will provide insights on whether it is painted on, a thin vinyl appliqué, or a more substantial raised logo that can be found on helmets like those the Chicago Cubs wear.
Helmet style/construction: On a very basic level, the obvious thing to consider is if the helmet in question should be without ear flaps, with ear flaps covering either the right or left ear, or whether it should be the style that covers both ears. A more subtle and often overlooked aspect involves the ventilation system at the top of the helmet. This has changed over time. What you want to look for is the number of holes and how they are placed on the top of the helmet.
Player Identification: With respect to player identification, I am referring to how the team has marked the helmet for ease in identification. This too has changed over time and varies from team to team. Be sure to find images that show both the front and back of the helmet. There are various styles of “Dynmo Tape” or use of an embossing gun to state player name and or number. Note the details of how this is done over time.
Manufacturer Identification: Look at the back of the helmet as this is where this can be found if externally present. For ABC batting helmets, it appears that a manufacturers date code begins to appear around 1990. The code is simple to read and an example has been provided for your use and reference.
Player Use/Wear Characteristics: Compare what you see in an image to what the helmet has to offer. In some cases you will find that the helmet is covered with pine tar, when images don’t support this. The opposite is also true although it may be that the helmet was cleaned after the picture taken. In some cases you will players who’s helmets differ in terms of style or construction as opposed to what others might have worn. Brooks Robinson and Carl Yastrezemski are just a couple of examples to note.
Like most things in the game used world, you really aren’t sure what you know until you begin to look at them for yourself. Hopefully this column served the purpose of providing a frame of reference and point of departure as you either begin to study them or expand on what you already know.
REFERENCES For This Article Include:
Big Red Dynasty: How Bob Howsam & Sparky Anderson Built the Big Red Machine; Rhodes and Erardi, page 141-143.
Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, page 153.
Baseball In High Gear: Speed by Steve Fifer