Ferguson: A history lesson on the batting helmet

Scott Ferguson
5/10/2013 11:02:50 AM
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The most horrifying sight in baseball is to see a batter get hit in the head with a pitch or a pitcher get struck in the head by a line drive.

Earlier this week at Tropicana Field, Blue Jays lefty J.A Happ could have had his career, if not his life, ended by a line shot up the middle by the Rays' Desmond Jennings that struck him in the skull near his left ear. Happ was fortunate to escape with a small fracture behind his left ear, a lacerated ear, and an injury to his right knee, from the awkward way he fell when nailed by the ball. Happ is estimated to be out anywhere from 3-6 weeks.

Even close calls like this can be career-altering. Reliever Rob Dibble, one of the 'Nasty Boys' World Series-winning bullpen of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, remembered facing Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, then with Cleveland, in a game a few years later. Murray hit a screaming liner up the middle and by some miracle, Dibble got his glove up and caught the ball at the last second. Dibble said that incident changed him. He claimed to never fully trust his stuff again after that and was never quite the same pitcher, ultimately out of the game a couple of years later.

The most frightening and gruesome incident I ever saw occurred on September 8th, 2000. Ryan Thompson of the Yankees hit one back through the box and it struck Red Sox reliever Bryce Florie square in the face. He simply had no time to react. 'Sport Science' estimated the ball was travelling at 120 miles per hour and hit Florie with a force of 5,500 pounds.

Florie suffered several facial fractures and partial vision loss in his right eye. There was blood everywhere. Believe it or not, Florie actually briefly made it back to the Majors the following year, but quickly left the game as a player thereafter.

Baseball took a long time to develop protection for batters and even the coaches manning the bases. Ray Chapman, the star shortstop of the 1920 Cleveland Indians, is still the only Major League player to die from an on-field incident. He was struck on the side of the head by a pitcher from the Yankees sidearm hurler Carl Mays on August 16th, 1920 and died 12 hours later in hospital.

Though various players experimented with head protection over the years, the first true well-marketed batting helmet wasn't produced until 1952. Oddly enough, the man responsible was the same man who brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Branch Rickey was the general manager of Pittsburgh Pirates in 1952 and commissioned one of his front office team, Charlie Muse to come up with something that would offer protection to the players when they stepped up to the plate. Muse obliged and Rickey's own outfit, the American Cap Company, would market these 'helmets'.

But it wasn't until 1971 that helmets became mandatory and even then, there was a 'grandfathering' rule that gave veteran players the right to choose whether to wear them or not for the remainder of their careers. The last player not to wear a helmet was former Red Sox catcher and later broadcaster Bob Montgomery, who played until 1979. Montgomery also spent some time in Toronto catching for the old Maple Leafs of the International League, then a Boston affiliate.

Even the helmet with at least one earflap wasn't made manditory until 1983.

The point is baseball moves slowly. Efforts are being made to develop some sort of padding that could at least be fitted into a pitcher's cap to protect the skull to a degree. But I doubt we'll ever see the day a pitcher wears the type of helmet a batter does. Pitchers maintain it would be too cumbersome, too uncomfortable and would affect their performance. I can guarantee we'll never see the day when a pitcher wears a full facial shield or mask but a cap insert is an important and necessary step to give pitchers some semblence of protection and a chance to at least escape more serious injury in baseball's most frightening and dangerous plays.

Numbers Game
Last season , the Baltimore Orioles made their season with their record in one run games (29-9) and extra inning contests (16-2). Already this season, the Blue Jays are 4-8 in one run games and 1-3 in extras, not to mention 6-14 against their own division, including 3-10 against the the Yankees and Red Sox. That does not bode well, especially with the starting rotation ravaged by injuries.

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