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Guest Blogger – Evolution of Catcher’s Equipment

Monday, January 19th, 2009

This is a guest blog entry about the Evolution of Catchers Equipment – blog.baseballrampage.com Admin.

The field position denoted on your scorecard as “2″ has never been an easy job. Errant balls, foul tips and flying bats are all a source of pain for catchers. The backstops from baseball’s first fifty years endured daily physical punishment, all without the luxury of today’s protective equipment.

Catchers are expected to take their lumps without grumbling. But the early efforts of catchers to protect themselves met with a lot of flak. A typical reaction came from the crowd at the Polo Grounds when baseball’s New York Giants opened the 1907 season against the Philadelphia Phillies. As the Giants took the field, star catcher and Hall-of-Famer, Roger Bresnahan looked more like a goaltender than a backstop when he squatted behind the plate in a pair of thickly upholstered shin guards.

Bresnahan’s shin guards were the final pieces of the catcher’s armor, following the mask, glove, and chest protector. This armor kit was lovingly dubbed “the tools of ignorance” by Herold “Muddy” Ruel, a lawyer turned backstop.

The first piece of protection for catchers, a rubber mouth protector, dates to the 1870s era, purloined perhaps from the sport of bare knuckles boxing. Masks were more obviously a protective device. The first was invented by an Ivy League man, Fred Thayer, who in 1876 adapted a fencing mask for Alexander Tyng, then for the Harvard Nine. Thayer’s patented mask went into the Spalding catalog for the 1878 season and adaptations followed quickly. Its simple forehead- and chin-rests were embellished with padding, made from “imported dog skin” according to one Spalding catalog, to insulate the steel-mesh frame from the catcher’s face. Better visibility was always a goal in catcher’s masks. Wire-basket cages worn by players like Roger Bresnahan gave way to the greatly improved peripheral vision of so-called “Open Vision” and “Wide Sight” masks by the 1911 season. The “platform mask”, a one-piece aluminum casting with horizontal crossbars instead of soldered mesh, was patented by umpire James E. Johnstone in 1921. A White Sox and Twins catcher from 1955 to 1967, Earl Battey, notes that a change in pitching and catching styles is the reason why today’s catchers are wearing masks with throat protectors, popularized by Dodger catcher Steve Yeager in the 1970s. The end of the 20th Century has seen the mask evolve into something resembling what Darth Vader would wear. It’s genesis sprung from hockey’s goalie mask and introduced by Catcher Charlie O’Brien on May 13, 1997 (Friday the 13th).

Mitts were a taken-for-granted part of catching. The earliest documented use of a glove by any player occurred on June 28, 1870 and that was by a catcher. A sportswriter for the Cincinnati Commercial cabled his office, [Doug] Allison caught today in a pair of buckskin mittens, to protect his hands. Historians quibble over whether Harry Decker or Joe Gunson first used the padded catcher’s mitt in the 1880′sThe “Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt,” a contraption that was basically a glove stitched to the back of a round pad that covered the palm of the hand. These gloves were literally flat pillows that got their pockets broken in on the job at the expense of the catcher’s palm. The early gloves, lacking webbing and lacing, merely provided protection for the hands. “Mitts were still pretty small, flat and had no shape when I came into the big leagues in 1937,” recalls former Brooklyn Dodger catcher Mickey Owen. Catcher Earl Battey, a 3-time Gold Glove winner, notes that mitts have changed substantially even since he was battery mate with Gold Glove pitcher Jim Kaat on the Minnesota Twins in the 1960s. “Today’s mitts have multiple breaks and a long oval pocket, more like a first baseman’s,” says Battey. “When I played, we had a pocket but no breaks, and we caught two-handed so the ball wouldn’t pop out.” One-handed catching became possible with the hinged mitt, popularized by Johnny Bench and Randy Hundley in the late 1960s. With these, a spring-action hinge snaps the mitt closed on contact with the ball.

Women got into the act of making catching a safer profession. Legend has it that the wife of Detroit Tigers catcher Charles Bennett devised a chest pad to protect her hubby during games. He wore the creation outside his jersey in 1886. James “Deacon” White, a 9-year catcher in the 1870s who switched to 3rd base for 6 more years, supposedly created the first chest protector in the early 1880s. His design included a canvas-covered rubber bladder pumped full of air. Padding eventually replaced the air tubes. Today’s chest protectors, although ribbed with light but shock-absorbing poly foam, have come full circle from the original fur-stuffed sheepskin “breast protectors” worn under the uniform until 1884.

Among the tools of ignorance, the designs of masks and mitts have evolved the most, in response to the way baseball is played. By contrast, shin guards and chest protectors haven’t changed as much. The curiosities that Roger Bresnahan wore 102 years ago actually were a modified version of the leg guards worn by cricket players. Rods of light cane encased in padded fabric covered the shins, and padding protected the knees. Over time, padded leather covered the kneecaps, insteps and ankles. Hard, heavy fiberboard appeared in Rawling’s guards in 1916 and during the 1920s and ’30s it supplanted cane. The hinged Shin Guard was developed by the Dodgers in the late 1950′s. By the 1960s, light but tough molded plastics replaced fiber.

Today the well-protected warrior behind home plate has taken advantage of modern technology, especially that developed for law enforcement. Body armor, for the catcher in the 21st Century, might well be identical to the light weight kevlar vests worn under shirts by police officers today. So perhaps chest protection will come full circle and the catchers of tomorrow will be wearing their armor beneath their jerseys just like the players in the 1880′s.

Baseball, though it sometimes seems the most tradition-bound of sports, has always shown that All-American penchant for tinkering and innovation. This quest for the better mousetrap has been amply applied to catcher’s gear. The evolution of the equipment corresponds to actual changes in the tactics and rules of the game. The tinkering continues.

- Guest blog by Chuck Rosciam, BaseballCatchers.com, Member of SABR (The Society For American Baseball Research).

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