Baseball's Closest Ally

added 3/15/2008 by Gene Elston

At their annual meeting in 1955, National League Directors voted 6-2 to make compulsory the wearing of batting helmets - the move without a doubt one of the most important safety rules in the history of the game. Last season, following the death of minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh, who was struck by a line drive while on the coaching lines, baseball added first and third base coaches to the helmets list. This year, the new rule will go a step further - a move that will keep coaches within the coaching boxes.

In the past, coaches had the freedom to wander beyond the white lines, except when the opposing manager complains. Then the umpire will strictly enforce the rule and require all coaches (on both teams) to remain in the coach’s box at all times. It has been common practice for third base coaches to move out of the box and down the line toward home plate to determine the feasibility of the runner scoring or holding him at third. Starting this year, first and third base coaches must not cross the lines toward home plate or the field until batted balls are past them. Only then can they take up other spots to guide runners.

Some historians report that New York Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan may have been the first player to wear a protective covering in 1907. Bresnahan had been beaned and shortly thereafter used a leather protector over his cap. The first mention of the term 'Batting Helmet' was in relation to Branch Rickey when he was manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Seems the headgear was a pet project of his in the early 1920s when he asked his players to wear (whatever they looked like) in spring training. I was not surprised by this finding since, as history unfolded, no one else in the game exercised a more profound impact on baseball for so long a period as Branch Rickey.

Photo from 1939 New York Daily News

It was ironic, following Rickey's reported use of such a device to protect batters, that later in 1920 on August 16th, shortstop Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was hit in the head with a pitch thrown by New York right-hander Carl Mays. Chapman appeared to duck away from the pitch before it hit him in the temple. After crumpling to the ground, he was helped back to the Indians clubhouse and removed to the hospital where the 29-year-old lapsed into a coma and died early the next morning. There was an outcry by Boston and Detroit players demanding the side-armed pitcher be banned from baseball, and a week later the Cleveland club petitioned the other American League clubs not to play the Yankees if Mays were pitching. Both the banishment and petitions failed. Mays continued pitching for the Yankees through 1923 and later with Cincinnati and the Giants. Mays would wind up his major league career in 1929. Quoted just before his death in 1971 Mays said, "Of course I regret Ray Chapman's death. He was a good friend of mine, but regret is not the word, I felt awful. But I’ve never regretted anything I did. I was pitching honestly."

To my knowledge, not much was discussed openly concerning Chapman's death for some time but baseball had to be looking for a possible solution to protect the most vulnerable part of the batter's body. 1937 was the beginning of serious thought in the direction of helmets. The New York Daily News printed an editorial in June, "advising the use of helmets to minimize the danger of batters being hit by pitched balls." However, earlier in April of 1937 the Des Moines Demons of the Western League had already experimented with polo helmets but found them too heavy, along with the added task of adjusting the chinstraps and discarding them while running to first base.

In 1939, it became a reality that someone had been giving serious thought to the problem. It was announced that the "Safety Cap or Helmet" was now official equipment in the International League thanks to the Spalding Research and Development Laboratories. Designed by league president Frank Shaughnessey and Ed Rainey of Spalding, three caps were supplied to each team and their use by the players was optional. It weighed seven ounces and fit snugly over the regular uniform cap. It appeared to be a thoroughly practical device, quick removal, and at seven ounces its presence barely felt. Made of hard fiber and sponge rubber knobs (which probably led to ear-flaps) to protect the temples and held in place by a spring steel band.

Although the players had the option to use the new addition it was welcomed by a high percentage of the batters and was first used by Buster Mills of Newark. The International League was a Triple-A league and some of the veterans in the majors chimed in by taking the introduction of the batting helmet very lightly with negative remarks. One of the most outspoken was a statement by Frankie Frisch in 1940 while managing the Pirates, "In my day, guys like (Burleigh) Grimes and (Dizzy) Dean would play tunes on those plastic thingamajigs and make 'em sound like Swiss bell-ringers". Frisch delighted in teasing modern players for wearing the helmets, which he called "inverted garbage cans".

It didn’t take long for the major leagues to take hold of what Spalding and the International League had accomplished and by the early '40s baseball was still fighting to come up with a final answer, perhaps dreaming of something like we have today. On March 10, 1941 senior executive Larry MacPhail announced the Brooklyn Dodgers would be wearing protective headgear. Later, after leaving the Dodgers, MacPhail looked back on the days of Leo Durocher stating, "I had a manager who had a reputation of throwing at people and naturally the other fellows threw at our players, and I had to act in self defense. The thing started with a pad that could be inserted into the cap. Many players rejected it and called it sissy. However, I know it saved the lives of Joe Medwick and Dolf Camilli, and for all I know, the development of the idea may have kept many more ball players alive through the years."

Spalding ad for the same model.

As I look back I'm sure the United States' entry in 1941 into World War II slowed the progress of a real batting helmet. When I joined the Chicago Cubs in 1954, some players were still wearing what MacPhail referred to as a "pad that could be inserted into the cap" -- it was a hard horseshoe-shaped plastic strip about two inches wide inserted into the sweat band that gave the cap a stiff looking appearance. However, some clubs were using the 'modern' helmets in the early '40s and they became mandatory in the National League in 1955 and the American in 1956 - but, without ear flaps.

Baseball became tougher and ruled all players who entered the majors in 1983 or since must wear a single ear-flap helmet while at bat, and can use double ear-flaps if they wish. Only those players who were in the majors in 1982, and who were recorded as objecting to wearing the batting helmet, were excused from the mandatory protection.

Today more and more pitchers are clocked on the radar guns in the high 90s and 100 mph. The speed of a pitch has fascinated the average fan more today than years ago -- just watch the scoreboard in any ballpark and it's right there along with type of pitch (slider, curve, change-up) and pitch count. Radio and TV announcers also can read it.

Years ago many pitchers reached around the 100 mark. Nolan Ryan was clocked at 100.8; J.R. Richard at 100; Walter Johnson in 1910 at 99.7 and Bob Feller at 107.9 in 1946, to mention just a few. Pitchers do, of course, come up in relation to batting helmets when we think of those who face them in the batters' box - fastballs in-and-around 100 mph reach the plate in about 0.38 seconds which cuts down the batters decision-time to swing from 1/10th to 1/8th of a second.

Just for the record here are the principals: In 2007, batters hit by pitch in the American League numbered 800. In the National, 835 - total 1,635. That, I believe, is a LOW number when estimating the number of pitches thrown and the skill of the players.

Gene Elston is the former play-by-play voice of the Houston Colt .45s and Houston Astros (1962-1986) and the 2006 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award given by the Baseball Hall of Fame. For more of Gene's remembrances and historical perspectives, visit Gene Elston's Journal.