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Searching for the History of the Batting Helmet

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From left: Jackie Hayes dons Ford Frick’s batting helmet (August 1940); David Wright wears the new Rawlings S100 (September 2009); Newark’s Buster Mills models the “Safety Cap or helmet” adopted as official equipment by the International League (circa 1939).

When David Wright donned the “new batting helmet” late last season – and was mocked mercilessly by just about everyone – I thought it would be a good idea to go back through some old magazines and newspapers and find how people reacted to the introduction to the original helmet. I was certain that I could find ballplayers and writers saying the same thing then that ballplayers were saying now about the Wright helmet. I never wrote that piece, though, because I ran into a problem: there was never really a big, league-wide rollout of batting helmets to mark the new era. In fact, the answer to the question “who was the first baseball player to wear a batting helmet?” is pretty nebulous.

I put the notes to the side and told myself that I would come back to it, but I never did. But then I found myself drawn back to Paul Lukas’ wonderful blog, Uni Watch, which I, for some reason, had strayed away from recently. Well, for those who don’t know, Paul has had a keen interest in the development of the batting helmet (and the batting helmet w/earflaps) for a while. Every now and then he posts an interesting photo or whatnot that he or a reader has stumbled across, and it gets us all just a tad bit closer to solving the whole puzzle. Last week, he unveiled another piece to the puzzle: a reader had recently stumbled across the Popular Science archives and found this image from the November 1940 issue. Paul loved it, and was able to determine that the helmet shown there was probably the same one that Jackie Hayes had worn in the summer of 1940.

Well, the image looked incredibly familiar to me, so I pulled up my notes from last fall. I had found the same image in Popular Science too, but in the October 1940 issue. I emailed that photo, and many more that I found in that initial research phase to Paul, and, with his encouragement, I decided to investigate the issue some more. I spent some more time in the Google News and Proquest archives this weekend, and I even went to the library to pull up some books. I can’t say that I’ve solved the puzzle, but I do feel like I connected and filled in a lot of areas that were incomplete or hanging loose. Keep reading for a timeline on the invention and evolution of the batting helmet in baseball.

(Click “Read More” to continue reading. Be warned, it’s quite long.)

1905
reachhelmetFrank P. Mogridge, of Pennsylvania, is granted Patent No. 780,899 for a “Head Protector”. It is a “goofy-looking device that resembled a boxing glove wrapped around the batter’s head” (Dan Gutman, Banana Bats and Ding-Dong Balls). It was marketed by the A.J. Reach Company as the “Reach Pneumatic Head Protector for Batters.” It was “pneumatic” in that the player had to blow it up like a floatie for it to work.

1907
Future Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan, inventor of the catcher’s shin guards and other devices, is beaned in the head mid-summer. In the July 11, 1907, edition of the Washington Post, it is announced that he will wear the Mogridge device when he returns to play. Here’s how the Post describes it:

“It is a rubber affair which completely protects his head and will save him in the future from such blows as put him to sleep in Cincinnati recently when he stopped one of Andy Coakley’s fast inshoots with his left temple and was unconscious for hours.

If Bresnahan continues his policy of protecting himself against injury with all sort of devices it will require a small express wagon to drag his paraphanelia to and from the grounds before and after each game. Incidentally a head gear will make it possible for him to stand up against any kind of pitching and no doubt there will be more kicks from the opposing teams but there is no rule preventing Bresnahan or any one else from using these things.”

The July 30, 1907, Atlanta Constitution edition mentions that Bresnahan “has adopted the use of an ear muff to protect the side of his head turned to the pitcher when batting.” I could not find any photos of Bresnahan wearing the device. He did not seem to wear it for long, though.

1920
Ray Chapman is hit in the head and killed by a ball pitched by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. This shocks the baseball world but, though there are some calls to fix the problem somehow (H.C. Hamilton, in the August 25, 1920, edition of the San Antonio Evening News, calls for “experts to get busy on a new protector”), it doesn’t change anything.

In the intervening years between Bresnahan and Chapman, there were some attempts at head protection. In Peter Morris’ incredibly thorough, well-written, and insightfully sourced A Game of Inches, he mentions a few of them: Freddie Parent had some sort of head protector in 1908; Frank Chance wore some headgear in 1913, “though it was little more than a sponge wrapped in a bandage”; Utica pitcher Joe Bosk wore headgear with a pad on one side in 1913 after getting beaned in the head in 1911; Phillies manager Pat Moran introduced cork-cushioned caps to his players in early 1917, but it’s unclear if they were worn in games. Morris’ book also mentions that the Indians experimented with leather helmets in the spring of 1921 as a result of Chapman’s death, though I couldn’t find anything regarding that.

1937
On May 25, 1937, Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, then the player-manager of the Detroit Tigers, is hit in the head by a pitch from the Yankees’ Bump Hadley. The pitch fractures his skull in three parts, ending his career. Though he is not killed, this acts as another wake-up call to baseball, and some action is actually taken this time. Cochrane is asked a month later if he thinks batters should be forced to wear helmets. “Absolutely,” he says. “A thrown ball even in the hands of a careful, sporting pitcher can perform weird trips…and a hitter is liable to be struck at any time.”

philathletics-polohelmetWithin the week, Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, experiments with polo helmets (see article). On June 1, 1937, Athletics and Indians players test the helmets in batting practice. There is no evidence that they actually wore the helmets in the game, though. (photo shown taken from Popular Science; also, see article)

That same week, the Des Moines Demons of the Western League experiment with polo helmets in a game. They don’t seem to take.

Negro Leaguer Willie Wells is often cited as the first player to wear a modern helmet in a game. The date is usually given as sometime in 1942 (I saw it listed as that in a few places). According to Morris’ book, though, researcher Larry Lester was able to find an account of the event in the August 26, 1937, edition of the New York Age. I couldn’t get access to those archives, so I can’t say for sure, but the rest of the research in Morris’ book checks out, so I’m inclined to believe it. The helmet that he wore that day was a modified construction worker’s hard hat. (I suspect a photo of this hat will be Uni Watch’s next holy grail).

1939
bustermills-smlThe August and September issues of Popular Science feature photos of Lamar Newsome wearing a head protector that is placed under the cap.

The International League adopts the “Safety Cap or helmet” as official equipment. Outfielder Buster Mills of Newark became the first player in the league to use the light, practical helmet.

1940
This is where the timeline gets a little cluttered and tough to decipher. I’ll do my best…

Brooklyn’s Pee Wee Reese and Joe Medwick are both victims of dangerous beanings, as is the Giants’ Billy Jurges. In response to this, the National League meets at the all-star break to discuss helmets. In this June 30, 1940, article of the Pittsburgh Press, president Ford Frick is shown holding a new helmet that he had designed and that he hoped to have the league mandate (other photos available in the article):

“I’ve been doping out ways to prevent this, rectify that. But the best solution by far to the problem I think, lies with the helmet.

If we could call a league meeting and unanimously pass a measure requiring every batter to wear protection at the plate we would wipe out hospital cases and head injuries in short order.”

frick1-smlThe Frick helmet starts showing up elsewhere. This is the helmet that Uni Watch linked to last week from Popular Science, and that I found in a different issue of the same magazine. It’s also the helmet that Jackie Hayes is wearing in this image dated 8/23/40 that Uni Watch found last month. You can see Hayes and the helmet in action in this photo from the August 23, 1940, edition of the New York Times (I apologize for the graininess, but there’s not much you can do with newspaper archives). Cardinal Terry Moore models it in this photo from the July 15, 1940, edition of the Kingsport Times.

In a 1955 article in Baseball Digest, Pee Wee Reese claims that he was the first player to wear a batting helmet, and that he did so in 1940 after getting beaned by Jake Mooty. I didn’t see any evidence of this happening in 1940 (though I admit that I didn’t exactly research this thread as much as others), though 1941 is a different story.

1941
This a busy year for the helmet. On February 5, 1941, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the National League had adopted a helmet for all clubs to try out in spring training. The helmet was designed by Dr. George Bennett of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Ottawa Citizen claims that Ford Frick had a hand in the design as well. It’s my assumption that this is the same helmet Frick introduced the year before. Dodgers’ president Larry MacPhail is the only one to say that he would make his players use it.

MacPhail keeps his promise – sort of. On March 8, 1941, the Dodgers announced that their players would be wearing a new helmet designed by Dr. Bennett and one Dr. Walter Dandy. The Frick helmets would stay in camp, but the players would use a more lightweight helmet. It wasn’t exactly the modern day helmet, though:

“Zippered pockets are cut in each side of a regulation baseball cap. Into one of these pockets, on the side he faces the pitcher, the batter will slip a plastic plate which is about a quarter inch thick and little more than an ounce in weight. The plate, about the width and length of a man’s hand, covers the vulnerable area from the temple to about an inch behind the ear.”

A good picture of the device can be found in the June 1941 issue of Popular Science

The Dodgers weren’t the only team wearing these new helmets this year. On April 26, 1941, the Washington Senators joined the Dodgers as teams with protective helmets. The Senators’ helmets were sewn shut, though, unlike the Dodgers. On June 6, the Giants also began wearing protective caps. Their protective liners were made of plastic and sewn shut. By June 24, the Cubs were also among the helmeted, which may have proven beneficial. That day, Chicago outfielder Hank Leiber was struck in the head. The New York Times story from the day claims that the helmet saved him from serious injury; the Chicago Tribune, however, claimed that it hit him in a spot “not protected by the new armored cap.” On August 20, 1941, St. Louis’ Terry Moore (the same one pictured above) is hit in the head, behind the left ear. The New York Times says that “Moore was not wearing the protective helmet with which the Cardinals are equipped. Fellow-players said that Terry did not wear the helmet except in exhibition games.” The helmets were obviously making their way around the league by that time.

The May 20, 1941, edition of the St. Petersburg Times claims that the “’41 baseball season marked by war, introduction of helmet”. When asked about “modern day” baseball on March 26, 1941, Connie Mack proves again to be a fan of the helmet: “The man who invents a helmet that insures absolute protection will make a fortune… Some players may feel now it would reflect on their gameness to wear one but the time is coming when they will be standard equipment.”

1953
kiner-helmet-smlIn 1950, Branch Rickey left the Dodgers and became general manager of the Pirates. While GM there, he became involved with the American Baseball Cap, Inc. The company, under direction of Charlie Muse, worked with Cleveland engineers Ed Crick and Ralph Davia to design a useful, light-weight batting helmet. Some reports say that, in 1952, Rickey introduced this cap to baseball, citing names like Ralph Kiner and Phil Rizzuto as early adopters. The earliest evidence I can find of the Pirates wearing, however, is from the May 16, 1953, edition of the Times-News of Hendersonville, NC.

(Interestingly enough, a December 6, 1955, article in the Pittsburgh Press, mentions that though “Kiner owns stock in the plastic helmet factory that services the Pirates … he never wore one in a game.”)

On May 5, 1953, the Ottawa Citizen mentions that “major league clubs are becoming quite interested in a new type of plastic protective cap which has been put on the market recently.” On July 20, 1953, Brooklyn outfielder Carl Furillo is hit in the head by a pitched ball. The Times-News says that it “struck the top of his protective helmet.”

1954
On August 1, 1954, Milwaukee Braves first-baseman Joe Adcock was beaned in the head by Clem Labine in the fourth inning of a game at Ebbets Field. Adcock had hit four home runs the day before, and was brushed back in the third inning. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, but was not seriously injured. The Chicago Tribune reports that his “metal head protector” that “he wore under his cap” took all the damage; the dent in it was visible. The New York Times, however, describes it as a “plastic helmet”.

In the wake of the beaning, the Associated Press ran a story detailing the use of “plastic protective helmets” around the league which proved to be a wealth of information. The Milwaukee Journal carried the story on August 3, 1954:

“Plastic protective helmets, such as that which saved Milwaukee Joe Adcock from serious injury Sunday, are worn by a large majority of major league batters.

The protective helmet was the personal brainchild of Branch Rickey, now general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who ordered them as standard equipment for his team at spring training in Havana in 1952.

The St. Louis Cardinals followed suit. The rule is so strictly enforced with the Cards that Sal Yvars was fined $25 by the club for failure to wear a helmet in an exhibition game this spring.

Other clubs which make the headgear more or less mandatory are the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants and Chicago Cubs in the National League and the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox in the American League.

There are two types of protective gear. One is the plastic skull cap, such as worn by Adcock and popularized by Rickey. The other is the plastic band. This is the type used by the Giants and Indians. The band offers protection against a ball landing around the temples and other vital spots, but doesn’t ward off a shot at the top of the head.

Shortstop Phil Rizzuto is the only member of the New York Yankees who wears a helmet. Three members of the Washington Senators use different kind of headgear. Eddie Yost wears temple protectors, Mickey Vernon has a band which goes all around his head, and Joe Tipton uses the full helmet.

A half dozen or so members of the Baltimore Orioles wear the helmets, as do about the same number of the Boston Red Sox.”

The version of the article appearing in the New York Times that day is edited slightly different, and mentions Enos Slaughter as joining Rizzuto as helmet-wearing members of the Yankees.

1956
On December 5, 1955, the National League passed a rule requiring all players to wear protective headgear. The rule went into effect for the 1956 season.

In the early-1950s, the Little League governing board made it mandatory for all children to wear helmets during Little League games. The helmet they used protected both ears, but was not the traditional helmet that we’re used to today. In May 1956, shortly after being traded from Cleveland to Chicago, Larry Doby wore a Little League-style helmet in a game at Detroit. Uni Watch has a fantastic photo of it here, and Baseball Digest talks about it briefly here. He was still wearing it in late-May and early-June (includes another photo).

1958
littleleaguehelmets-smlOn March 26, 1958, the Little League governing board announced a “new and more comprehensive helmet for Little League batters and base runners” to be used around the country. The new helmet was double-earflapped and looked very much like what we’re used to seeing today. The new helmets were rated to withstand balls travelling upwards of 120 mph. At the unveiling, a demonstration was performed, showing that “a modern major league captype helmet, made of a different type of plastic” would crack on a 95 mph pitch. In the picture to the right, note the similarities to the cap in his hand and the cap Doby was wearing in 1956.

Some other facts found in the March 27, 1958, article in the Chicago Tribune:

“Present Little League helmets, which still will be permitted but which – it is hoped – will be supplanted by the new and safer one, are of two types: The cap-helmet used in the big leagues and a wrap-around leather helmet which protects the temples and back of the head but not the top.

The Little League, according to Mickey McConnell, director of training, pioneered the use of helmets in 1949 and since that time has had only about 100 concussions yearly even tho some half-million youngsters play each season.”

On March 11, 1958, the American League passed a rule requiring protective headgear for all players. This created a bit of a controversy, when it looked like Ted Williams might challenge the rule on the field of play. He obeyed the rule, however.

1960
piersall-helmet-smlOn May 2, 1960, Jim Lemon of the Washington Senators wore the new Little League helmet in a major league baseball game. He was the first player to try these new helmets in the big leagues. As the Milwaukee Journal described it, “The helmet has flaps that cover the ears and protect a larger area of the head than the standard plastic helmets. Other players tried out the helmet in batting practice but said it obscured their vision slightly.”

Cleveland outfielder Jim Piersall wore the Little League helmet in a game a month later. On June 5, 1960, Piersall hit a home run off Detroit pitcher Pete Burnside. Tigers players felt that he showboated after the dinger (he stopped at third, “doffed his cap and shouted at the Detroit dugout”). When he stepped up to bat two innings later, he was wearing the Little League helmet. Burnside threw three pitches up and in before finally being warned by the umpire. (Another photo can be seen here)

1961
On July 23, 1961, Minnesota catcher Earl Battey is beaned in the face, fracturing his cheek. He would return to the lineup about 10 days later wearing a makeshift ear-flap. He was wearing the earflap on August 11, when he hits two home runs in the game. He says that, despite hitting the two homers, the flap makes it hard for him to see. On September 5, this photo of his earflap (from Uni Watch) is run in various newspapers. One has to wonder why he chose the makeshift route over the Little League helmet already available.

That’s about all I can give you right now. The earflapped helmet gradually came into use in the 1960s. In 1971, helmets became mandatory in baseball (I guess as opposed to just “protective headgear”) and, in 19741983, flapped helmets became mandatory [edit: not sure why I put 1974 there... will have to look back at my notes]. Reading through all of these newspaper articles and magazine retrospectives this weekend, I was struck by two things: first, how frequent and dangerous these beanballs to the head were in the ’30s and ’40s; second, how many players are either credited with, or credit themselves with, being the first person to wear a helmet in a game. Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Hayes and Jim Piersall are just a few of players who clearly were not the first to wear helmets in a game, but who seem to remember differently.

One question that goes through your head when you read all of this is “why were players so opposed to helmets when they were first introduced?” Sure, there was the whole ‘he looks like a pansy and/or an idiot’-mentality among the players, but I think that would have disappeared quickly. The real reason helmets took so long to catch on is best described by Dan Gutman in his wonderful book, Banana Bats and Ding-Dong Balls:

“Baseball didn’t exactly rush to introduce head protection, but part of the problem was that a successful batting helmet required a material that was very strong but also very light. The first helmets made specifically for baseball were made from plaster poured over cloth baseball caps.

Just before World War II, synthetic plastics such as polystyrene and polyethylene were developed. They could be molded into any shape, and they were light, rigid, and tough.”

I know there are still gaping holes in this timeline and I don’t doubt that I may have left a mistake or two in here. If you see anything like that, let me know. In the meantime, though, I hope you find this history of the batting helmet – and it’s less-than-specific answer to the question “who was the first baseball player to wear a batting helmet in a game?” – interesting and informative. Who knew it could be so thick and convoluted?

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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