Monday, March 10, 2014

Brooklyn Dodgers Announce Batting Helmets Are Mandatory

On March 10, 1941, that the Brooklyn Dodgers announced that all of their players would start wearing batting helmets permanently in the upcoming season.  It was not long after that many other teams would adopt this safety precaution as well.

General Manager Larry MacPhail was the man behind this innovation; he also introduced night games, plane travel between games, and the baseball players pension plan.  The previous year taking pitches to the head seriously injured a couple of MacPhail’s players.  As a result, Larry went to George Bennett, professor of orthopedic surgery at John Hopkins School of Medicine, and the two devised a protective helmet for players.

In 1960, Jim Lemon became the first player to wear the new Little League helmet in a Major League game. These helmets were made with earflaps on both sides and were capable of withstanding a ball traveling at up to 120 miles per hour. One month later, Jim Piersall became the second player to wear the helmet in the Major Leagues.

With the helmet now being worn league wide in Major League Baseball, alterations of the helmet began to rise to the surface in 1961.

Finally, in 1971, Major League Baseball made the use of the batting helmet mandatory for all batters in the game. Veteran players, however, had the option of choosing to wear a helmet or not, as they were grandfathered into the rule. The last Major League player who did not wear a helmet while batting was Bob Montgomery. He retired in 1979.

In 1978, the next helmet remodeling took place when the Pirates Dave Parker wore a hockey mask at the plate after he broke his cheek and jaw bones in a collision at home plate. This lasted only one game and Parker then tried to use a helmet with an attached two-bar facemask, usually used for football helmets, to his batting helmet.

He also tried a helmet with a Dungard 210 model facemask screwed into his helmet. Other notable players to utilize a modified batting helmet include Gary Roenicke (1979), Ellis Valentine (1980), Terry Steinbach, Charlie Hayes, David Justice, Kevin Seitzer, Terrence Long, and Tony Roth.

Although helmets with earflaps were common in amateur sports, they were slow to gain popularity at the professional level. Earl Battey appears to have worn the first improvised flap, in 1961. During the 1964 season, Tony Gonzalez was the first major league baseball player to wear a batting helmet with a pre-molded earflap. Gonzalez was in the league top-ten in hit by pitches and the special helmet was constructed for his use.

Ron Santo was an early pioneer of wearing earflap helmets at the major league level, upon returning to action after having his left cheekbone fractured by a pitch in 1966. The players adopted earflaps reluctantly. Some batters felt that seeing the earflap out of the corner of an eye was distracting.

In 1983, it was made mandatory for new players to use a helmet with at least one earflap. Players who were grandfathered in could choose to wear a helmet without earflaps. Players can choose to wear double earflap helmets in the major leagues; however, this is not mandatory. Tim Raines was the last player to wear a helmet without earflaps, during the 2002 season. His flap-less Florida Marlins helmet is currently at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gary Gaetti, who retired in the year 2000, and Ozzie Smith, who retired in 1996, both wore flap-less helmets until they retired from the game. Julio Franco, who retired from baseball in May 2008, was the last active player eligible to wear a helmet without flaps, but he chose to wear a helmet with an earflap throughout his career. Some players, mostly switch hitters, also decided to wear double ear-flapped helmets while batting. Two notable players to do this were Orlando Hudson and Chuck Knoblauch.

On April 8, 2004, celebrated as "Hank Aaron Day" in Atlanta because it is the 30 anniversary of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715 home run, Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal came to the plate in the sixth inning with a helmet without an ear flap, as a tribute to Hank Aaron, who played his entire career in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and therefore did not wear a helmet with an ear flap during his playing career. Umpire Bill Welke made him get one with a flap before he could bat, despite the grand gesture.

In 2005, Major League Baseball test ran a new batting helmet for the first time in nearly three decades. At the All-Star Game in Detroit, players were seen wearing a new “molded crown” helmet that featured side vents, back vents and larger ear holes.

The no-flap helmet is still utilized in baseball. Catchers often wear a flapless helmet along with a facemask to protect the head when receiving pitches. Occasionally, players other than catchers will wear a batting helmet without earflaps while playing a defensive position in the field. A player who has a higher-than-normal risk of head injury usually does this. One notable example is former major-leaguer John Olerud, who started doing so after undergoing emergency surgery for a cerebral aneurysm while attending Washington State University. An earlier example was Richie Allen, who decided to wear a helmet in the field after at least one incident of being hit by objects thrown by fans.

In 2009, Major League Baseball decided to take action and protect players from the increasing number of concussions and head injuries. Rawlings came out with the S100 baseball helmet, named for its impact capabilities. It was able to withstand the impact of a baseball traveling at 100 mph from two feet away.

The other baseball helmets used are only required to withstand a 70 mph impact from 2 feet away. The first Major League Player to wear this helmet during a game was Ryan Dempster, pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

In 2013, per the new MLB-MLBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, MLB players will be required to wear the new Rawlings S100 Pro Comp.