Baseball Catcher’s Mask: How It Was Invented
In today’s game of baseball, the catcher’s mask is a fundamental
piece of equipment. The player positioned behind home plate is in a vital but dangerous position.
From his vantage point, the catcher can see the whole field, letting him observe and respond to the ongoing game in a way that no other player can. But it also puts him in the direct line of fire during batting. He may be hit by an errant pitch or a flying bat or pieces of a splintered one. Injuries from any of these causes can be serious. Catchers have been known to be knocked unconscious during play. Protective gear is essential.
How the Baseball Mask Came About
According to information from the Baseball Hall of Fame, the early catchers wore only a rubber mouth guard—there was no mask, no chest guard, no shin guards, and most surprisingly, no glove.
Because they wore no protection, they stood a few feet back from the plate and caught pitches on the bounce. With this type of play, there was also no need for catchers to crouch.
The evolution of the curveball in the late 1860s or 1870s was the development that brought about the need for the catcher’s mask. Catchers needed to come in closer to the plate in order to be there for the catch. This put the catcher in a position where he could be hit by either a ball or the bat.
A Harvard student named Fred Thayer is credited with having invented the first catcher’s mask. Thayer was team captain of the Harvard Nine, and he also played third base.
Thayer knew his pitcher was working on perfecting the curveball. It wasn’t an easy pitch to master, and there was controversy over the use of it. Some thought it was an unfair pitch, but slowly, teams, including Harvard and other college teams, were adding it.
As Thayer thought about his team and the use of this new pitch, he started ton contemplate how to protect his catcher. A new fellow, James Tyng, had just joined the team as catcher, and Thayer wanted his team to remain healthy and strong. What would protect Tyng from being injured with the new style of play?
Thayer had noticed the face masks used by the fencing team, and he wondered if that model could be used for a catcher’s mask. Catchers need to see everything on the field, so the dense woven mesh of the fencer’s mask needed to be modified. Since the catcher needed protection from something the size of a ball, the metal across the face could be much sparser, but metal also needed to be stronger.
With these thoughts, Thayer visited a tinsmith in Cambridge with his idea. The two were able to work together and modify the creation to Thayer’s satisfaction.
Thayer’s mask was first worn by James Tyng in a game in Lynn, Massachusetts (1877). There was some grousing from the opposing team that the mask gave the Harvard Nine an unfair advantage, but overall, the use of the mask gained approval.
The H Book of Harvard Athletics quotes an editorial from the Harvard newspaper, The Crimson:
“The new mask was proved a complete success, since it entirely protects the face and head and adds greatly to the confidence of the catcher, who need not feel he is in every moment in danger of a lifelong injury. To the ingenious inventor of this mask we are largely indebted for the excellent playing of our new catcher, who promises to excel the fine playing of those who have previously held this position…”
The Patent on the Catcher’s Mask
Fred Thayer applied for a patent for his “Face-Guard or Safety-Mask for Base-Ball Players” on January 15, 1878, less than a month later the patent was approved.
His application describes the mask this way:
“It consists of a forehead and a chin rest or bottom bearing, and a wire cage to receive them and extend about the face, the whole being substantially as represented [in the illustrations provided with the patent application], and provided with straps or means of securing the cage to the head of a player.”
The application also specified that the cage was “arched both horizontally and vertically, in order to deflect a ball when struck by it.”
Catcher Mask Adopted By Professional Teams
The value of the mask for professional teams was understood relatively quickly despite a challenging environment.
The culture of the day honored “manliness” of play: If a player suffered an injury (including a serious one), the honorable thing to do was to get up and resume your position. In the press, there are mentions of catchers who blacked out briefly from a hit, but the reporters wrote of the player’s heroic action in getting up and continuing to play.
On fields where a team’s catcher first wore a mask, there were taunts from the crowd. But because of the very real risks of the position, catchers soon started wearing the new gear.
By the late 1880s, there are enough modifications on record in the patent office that the masks must have come into wide use by that time.
Improvements to the Masks
One of the early patents on file that amends the invention was one
by George Barnard (1888) who realized that the catcher’s neck was still exposed. (A powerful ball to the neck can be painful and sometimes fatal.) He added another bar beneath the main part of the mask in order to provide more neck protection. His mask is also described as the “open view” mask as he saw that one of the horizontal bars across the eyes could be removed to provide greater visibility.
Catcher’s Mask Changes Game
Tyng, and those who followed, were able to move closer to the plate. Soon catchers began to crouch, enabling them to form a target with their hands in the strike zone.
Over time, it became clear that other protective measures needed to be implemented. Today the catcher wears shin guards, a chest protector, and a glove. The all-important catcher’s mask is sometimes an all-in-one piece combining the mask with a shell-type helmet. This provides the catcher with the protective head gear needed.