The History of Catcher's Gear


No position in baseball compares to the catcher. Crouched behind the plate for every pitch, it's the catcher that can dictate the course of a game like no other. Part game manager, part plate protector, the gear a catcher requires is distinctly different from the other eight players on the field.

Catcher's have always had a big role in the game and as it evolved, so did the need for protective equipment. Before the 1880's, catcher's roles were diminished as the goal of the pitcher was to allow the batter to get the ball in play. Catcher's stood 20-30 feet behind home plate and mostly caught foul tips.

But as the game changed, the need for catcher's gear became apparent. A facemask was introduced first, followed by a chest protector and shin guards. There have been many tweaks to get from there to the high-tech, modern day gear we see today's backstops wearing. Here's a look at the evolution of catcher's gear.


Early 1800s

Deacon White
 

Early 1800s

Future Hall of Famer Deacon White, who began his career as a catcher before moving to third base, creates a chest protector that used air for padding. The protector had a rubber bladder filled with air and was covered in canvas. The concept of inflatable protectors was used by umpires until the modern era.


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1875

Harold Ernst
 

1875

The need for catcher's gear became necessary because of a pitcher named Harold Ernst. While playing for the Harvard Nine, Ernst invented the curve ball. The pitch was hard to handle for both batters and catchers as frequent foul tips began causing injuries to the faces of catchers.


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April 12, 1877

Catcher's Mask Invented
 

April 12, 1877

Harvard player/manager Fred Thayer enlisted the help of a local tinsmith to invent the first catcher's facemask. Thayer modified a fencing mask using bars in place of the usual mesh. The facemask, resembling a bird cage, was worn by Harvard Nine catcher James Tyng.


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1878

Catcher's Mask Patented
 

1878

The first catcher's mask is patented by Thayer. It is sold later in the year by AG Spalding and Bros for $3 in their catalog.

Quote on first mask:

"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 that he is every moment in danger of a life-long 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."
Harvard Crimson




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1879

Foul Tip Rule Change
 

1879

Prior to this season, foul tips could be caught on one bounce and still counted as an out. But the rule was eliminated in 1879 and forced catcher's to move closer to batters. With the rule change, catcher's masks grew in popularity.


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May 1883

Charlie Bennett
 

May 1883

Playing in a game for the Detroit Wolverines, catcher Charlie Bennett dons an early version of a chest protector. The basic version was made by Bennett's wife, who placed cork strips between bedticking to provide her husband with added protection.


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1888

George Barnard
 

1888

Thayer's initial bird cage design is modified by George Barnard, who patents an “open view” mask. Barnard's mask is worn through the 1890s by future Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan and others.


Image Source: http://sabr.org

1890

Leg Guards
 

1890

Now armed with facemasks and chest protectors, catcher's moved to a final piece of protective gear - leg guards. Before the turn of the century, catcher's began wrapping their shins with leather or newspaper to help prevent bruising from foul tips and wild pitches. The wraps were worn underneath uniforms, as were early chest protectors.


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1907

Roger Bresnahan
 

1907

Future Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan, playing for the New York Giants, sports a modified version of cricket shin guards in a home game at the Polo Grounds against the Philadelphia Phillies. The guards were constructed by placing a padded fabric around rods of light cane.


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1911

Increasing Catcher's Visibility
 

1911

Catcher's facemasks got a facelift with the introduction of Open Vision and Wide Sight versions. The masks removed the vertical bar that ran through the middle of the mask, increasing visibility for catcher's. AJ Reach patented the mask and set the foundation for future masks to come.


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1916

Rawlings Shin Guard
 

1916

Rawlings creates their own shin guard that provides a stronger defense for catcher's than earlier versions. Instead of padded fabric, the manufacturer uses hard, heavy fiberboard as protection. This style of shin guard was used throughout the 1920s and 1930s.


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1921

James E. Johnstone
 

1921

Unimpressed with the soldered mesh used in facemasks, umpire James E. Johnstone patented a new platform mask. This mask used a one-piece aluminum casting with horizontal crossbars and introduced the concept of using new materials in facemasks.


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1923

Hugo Goldsmith
 

1923

Hugo Goldsmith get a patent for his oval surround padding, designed to provide catchers with a more lightweight, simple mask. The mask had two crossbars and cushioning around the aluminum frame


Image Source: http://www.gophersport.com/files/image/general/LARGE/BB_CatcherMask.jpg

Late 1950s

Brooklyn Dodgers
 

Late 1950s

The Brooklyn Dodgers - known for innovation throughout baseball - design a new shin guard to help their catchers. The new guard incorporates a hinge into the rigid fiberboard, making it more flexible and increasing mobility.


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1960s

Molded Plastic Shin Guards
 

1960s

Shin guards became more durable with the use of molded plastics instead of fiberboard. The change to plastics limited the risk of catchers having player's spikes cutting through their shin guards and causing damage to their legs.


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1976

Billygoat Throat Protector
 

1976

The Dodgers led the way again with the invention of a billygoat throat protector. The need for the attachment came from an injury sustained by Steve Yeager, who had a piece of a shattered bat hit his throat while kneeling in the on-deck circle. The Dodgers devised a throat protector to hang from the catcher's mask. While it's still used today, more modern masks incorporate throat protection into the helmet.


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May 13, 1997

Charlie O'Brien
 

May 13, 1997

On Friday the 13th, Toronto Blue Jays catcher Charlie O'Brien donned a high-tech polycarbon helmet and mask combination that resembled a hockey goalie's helmet. The helmet, designed by Jerry Van Valden of Catch You Later Headgear, weighed slightly more than a traditional catcher's helmet, but provided more protection around the head and a wider field of vision.


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2014

Experimental Rule Change
 

2014

Major League Baseball includes an experimental rule to prohibit baserunners from initiating contact with catchers. The hope with the new rule is that concussions and other injuries will be limited with the rule change.


Image Source: http://members.tripod.com/bb_catchers/catchers/photomo1.htm


Sources:
http://bestblog.mlblogs.com/2006/02/16/the-invention-of-the-catchers-mask
http://members.tripod.com/bb_catchers/catchers/equip2.htm
http://www.catchersgearhq.com/category/history
http://sabr.org/research/evolution-catchers-equipment