Head case: Batting helmet’s development began in Pittsburgh

Observer Reporter (Washington, PA)

August 1, 2022

Branch Rickey, baseball’s innovator and integrator, made a profound impact on the game, from the major leagues to youth leagues.

While Rickey is best known for bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues and helping to bring African-American players to the major leagues, he also impacted the game in other ways.

One of the most noteworthy was his introducing protective headgear to the game.

In the early 1950s, Rickey – then the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates – pushed for the use of protective headwear for batters and runners to avoid major injury in the case of being hit by a thrown baseball.

Rickey, who joined with others to design and develop a batting helmet, introduced it to the Pirates’ organization and eventually the team was the first to wear batting helmets in league play.

The Pirates’ players were often mocked and laughed at for wearing the helmets.

Over the past decades, concussions and preventing them are a foremost issue in professional, collegiate and high school sports. Athletes are required to take concussion tests and if a head injury is suffered in competition, the athletes are subject to concussion protocol procedures.

Most would agree that safety precautions are necessary and protecting the players from injury through athletics is of utmost importance.

Abe Key, president of PONY Baseball and Softball International, said PONY has always had rules about wearing some type of protection for the head.

“Early on it was an elastic top with ear flaps,” Key explained. “Now, all batting and catching helmets are manufactured to the NOCSAE-approved standard.

“The standard now is pretty cut and dried throughout the industry. I’ve met many times about the issue with the NCAA, National Federation of High School sports, youth leagues and the quality and safeness of the equipment is of utmost importance.

“The helmets are so much better, chest protectors are far better, you don’t see a lot of chest injuries. The industry has a lot of good, quality equipment out there for the safety of everyone.”

Cap it

Rickey’s idea in 1953 – American Baseball Cap Inc. – grossed more than $200,000 in 1957 compared with $6,000 in 1953. That is an increase of 3,233 percent in gross earnings.

During the same period, also adding protective headgear were the sports of polo, speedboat racing, golf, steeple chase riding, skiing and harness racing.

While many batters have been hit in the head throughout baseball history, Ray Chapman is the lone player to die as a direct hit in the head or from an injury suffered in a major league game. In 1920, he was hit with a pitch thrown by pitcher Carl Mays and died 12 hours later.

Ironically, his death led baseball to establish a rule requiring umpires to replace the ball whenever it becomes dirty. That, and sanitary concerns, led to the ban on spitballs after that season. Chapman’s death was used to promote the wearing of batting helmets. It took more than 30 years to adopt the rule that required their use.

Enter Rickey.

His research showed that most head injuries occurred in collisions with fences, player collisions or being hit by thrown or batted balls.

Rickey was receptive in 1952 when Ralph Davis, a Pittsburgh engineer, and Ed Crick, of Cleveland, brought a crude prototype sample of a protective cap to his Forbes Field office.

After much product study, research and re-design the protective cap was ready for trial. The first club to use it was New Orleans, a Pirates affiliate at the time in the Southern Association. Writers and players made jokes about it. Those barbs soon stopped because those wearing them were escaping injury.

At that point, American Baseball Cap Inc. was formed with Rickey buying the patent from Davis. Joining in the venture were Ken Blackburn, Rickey’s secretary, Ralph Kiner, George Sisler, Charlie Muse, Bill Meyer and others in the Pirates organization.

In 1957, every major and minor league club used the batting helmet. Semi-pro teams, colleges and Little League considered the “caps” a must.

The Pirates were the first to wear the caps and they were mocked and accused of looking like a bunch of junior coal miners.

The Specht Plastics Co., formerly the Somerset Laminates Co., was the lone manufacturer in 1956 of American Baseball Cap Inc. of Pittsburgh. Owner Edward A. Specht turned out about 3,000 helmets per week.

Only the shell of the helmet was manufactured in Pittsburgh. The shell is where a neoprene headband liner – plus a doughnut-type rubber crash supporter – is attached.

The cap was made of a fiberglass polyester material, about 8-1/2 ounces.

When Muse, a longtime Pirates’ executive, died in May 2005, former Associated Press sportswriter, Alan Robinson, wrote that Muse “created baseball’s modern batting helmet.”

Robinson wrote that Muse “worked with Davis and Crick to perfect a helmet that was strong, light and aesthetically pleasing. They went through numerous designs before coming up with a comfortable plastic helmet that provided maximum protection above the ears, the most vulnerable area for batters.”

According to a variety of reports, the Pirates were the first team to wear the helmets in 1952 and 1953. On Aug. 1, 1954 the Braves’ Joe Adcock was unconscious for 15 minutes after he was beaned by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Clem Labine. Adcock said wearing the helmet might have saved him from a severe injury. The day following the incident, the Dodgers ordered all players in their organization to wear helmets. Other teams followed shortly thereafter.

Jeff Mountain, baseball coach at Washington & Jefferson, said batting helmets are far different and superior to those from the past.

The Presidents use EvoShield type helmets and provide all players with their personal helmet. While costs have risen, so has safety.

“The padding is thicker and it’s cleaner inside the helmet,” Mountain said. “The helmets are better and safer.

“Our costs have risen but I don’t think it’s because of COVID or supply chain issues. They cost more because the quality is better and because of the way they must be made. What we have now are much better-quality helmets.”

Miller protects drivers

Legendary Delvin Miller, after working with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, introduced protective helmets for harness racing drivers to improve safety and to avoid major head trauma.

David R. Scofield, director of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in association with the Smithsonian Institution, in Avella, said the village has “several of Delvin’s helmets” in its collection.

“We do have a framed picture for his “Eight Decades” room exhibit that is “an advertisement for the type of helmet he endorsed from American Baseball Cap, Inc. in Pittsburgh, and a photo of himself showing the renowned European driver Charlie Mills in his new helmet.”

“Delvin was at a baseball camp with some buddies,” legendary harness racing announcer Roger Huston recalled. “He asked if they had three or four batting helmets to take home with him.

“Delvin played a little with the first one, painted it. Then he added some hole punches where the ears would be and then added a chin strap.”

NFL’s new rule

The NFL took another step in the name of helmet safety this year.

In March, the league passed a rule requiring offensive lineman, tight ends, defensive linemen, and linebackers to wear protective “Guardian Cap” helmet shells over their helmets from the beginning of training camp until the second preseason game.

The protective helmet looks like a bunch of Legos that form over the regular helmet.

Players at several NFL minicamps earlier this spring wore the Guardian Caps, though they were not required. Apparently, a bevy of players wanted to get a feel for them in advance, or potentially protect themselves from concussions that could come from unintentional contact.

According to Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, the soft protective shells can “reduce the amount, the intensity and the timing of head contact.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told all players to wear the caps during Pittsburgh’s minicamp, saying he thinks they’re good for player safety and he wanted his team to be at the forefront of the new effort.

Mandatory matters

In 1983, MLB made it mandatory for batters to wear at least one ear protector on their batting helmet.

The first known player to wear the C-flap was Oakland A’s catcher Terry Steinbach after breaking an orbital bone due to a freak pregame accident in May 1988. Steinbach had facial surgery and returned to action about a month later wearing a C-Flap.

In 2005, Major League Baseball tested 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. Players other than catchers will wear a batting helmet without earflaps while playing a defensive position. One example is former major-league player John Olerud, who started doing so after undergoing emergency surgery for a cerebral aneurysm while attending Washington State University. An earlier example was Richie (Dick) Allen, who decided to wear a helmet in the field after at least one incident of being hit by objects thrown by fans.

Major League bat-boys/bat-girls and ball boys/ball girls are required to wear helmets although they are permitted to use the no-flap helmet.

Currently, all leagues, up to and including Minor League Baseball, require the use of a double earflap batting helmet. In Major League Baseball, however, only one earflap is required.

Another big change came following the 2007 death of Tulsa Drillers first base coach Mike Coolbaugh after being hit by a batted ball, it became a rule for on-field MLB coaches to wear helmets. Base coaches from American Legion to college and minor league baseball are required to wear helmets while coaching first and third base.

Mountain, who coaches third base for W&J, said that while some might not exactly like wearing helmets in the coaching box, they do provide protection.

“Helmet safety has evolved and it is crucial in all sports but football is the most obvious,” Mountain said. “All of this has come along with the times and the need for more and better protection.”

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