August 21, 2014

The Story of the Beanball Hat

February 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

I am sure that many educated baseball fans are familiar with the story of the batting helmet.  Although, the popular belief is that Branch Rickey was the its creator.  To be perfectly honest, Mr. Rickey’s part should be described as the first to successfully market and benefit by financially from it.  While, the first part of that statement is not true, and the second part is arguably correct.  But before we attempt to clarify this important piece of baseball equipment, let us explore the origins and follow its evolution…

To start, there was a patent awarded in 1875 for a protective helmet, but the idea never came to fruition.  It was not until 1905, when Frank Mogridge, who is believed to be the first individual to make protective gear.  His invention looked like an inflatable boxing glove wrapped around the hitter’s head.  The A. J. Reach Company out of Philadelphia, Pa. sold it for $5.

Hall of Famer, Roger Bresnahan experimented with the batting helmet and made improvements.  In 1908, he developed a leather version of Mogridge’s concept after being severely hit by a pitch.  Roger is also credited with inventing catcher’s shin guards.

After the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman by Carl Mays, you would think the desire to wear protective gear by batters would have increased.  But as the great home run slugger Ralph Kiner would state in his memoir Baseball Forever, most were afraid that the opposition would question their manliness by calling them a “sissy.”

There are two claims to being the first helmet worn in baseball history.  In Dan Gutman’s According to the Way Baseball Works.  Gutman states that Willie Wells of the 1942 Newark Eagles of the Negro National League was the first player to wear this apparatus during a professional game.  He describes it as a blue-collar hardhat.

Others claim that players began wearing helmets after March 7, 1941.  That is when the Brooklyn Dodgers began to wear them.  The inspiration apparently due to the beaning suffered by Pee Wee Reese and Joe “Ducky” Medwick during a spring training game.  For that reason the team’s General manager Lee MacPhail gave orders for the entire team to start wearing them.

Walter Dandy, a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, designed the headgear worn by the Dodgers.  It was based on a jockey’s helmet.  It was a plastic shell that slipped into a zippered compartment.

Regardless of who started the idea; most agree that the first true helmet was designed and developed by Charlie Muse.

Charlie admitted in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the reason for  his invention was due to  letter that he received from the mother of child who suffered a brain injury.  The boy needed to exercise, but doctors would not allow him, not even to walk around because they feared he could die from a fall and hit his head.  Muse went to work and devised a helmet with a chinstrap.  The child was able to use it successfully.

Mr. Muse was just glad to help, which was befitting of his life story.

Charlie Muse was a longtime executive of the Pittsburgh Pirates (52 years).  He began his association with the team as a minor league catcher and manager.  He also served in both World War II and then Korea as a captain.  Charlie was  known to don the “tools of ignorance” and catch Spring Training batting practice at the age of seventy!

When he served  as a traveling secretary for the team he given the nickname of “the Colonel.”  He earned the nickname because of his ‘all business’ approach and his military-like ability to improvise.  Characteristics that helped with the invention of the batting helmet or ‘Beanball hat’ as Rickey fondly referred to it.

Muse worked with Ralph Davia (inventor) and Ed Crick (designer) to perfect the helmet.  They went through several designs before coming up with a comfortable helmet that provided maximum protection above the ears.

During the 1950s,  Branch Rickey, then Pirates’ General Manager pushed for the creation of a protective helmet, batters traditionally wore only their cloth caps to the plate.  Ralph Kiner admitted that during his playing days, helmets were necessary because pitchers threw at hitters without restraint.  It was an accepted part of the game.  It was way of taking away a batter’s confidence.

Charlie Muse designed a fiberglass-batting helmet and he offered Kiner stock if he became a part of the venture.  Ralph sent Muse to Rickey, who thought it wassuch a good idea that he created a company called American Cap Company.  He made Charlie Muse the president and challenged him to design a suitable helmet.   Kiner figures he made about $1,000 on the deal but of course, Rickey, made much more.  Branch informed all of his players that it was mandatory for everyone to wear them.  The Pirate players wore them while on the base paths and on the field when playing defense.  The joke around the National League was that the Pittsburgh players were so bad and needed to wear them to avoid getting their skulls fractured!

Charlie tells a funny story about the early days of the helmet.  He covered them with a felt finish, making them appear like a real cap with hopes that players would be less reluctant to wear them.  As the story goes, one damp afternoon Spike Briggs, the owner of the Detroit Tigers was Rickey’s guest for a game.  Briggs was decked out in a very white Palm Beach outfit.  Branch handed him a helmet to wear.  Unfortunately, it began to rain and the felt ran all over his outfit.  It seems that Muse used water-dissolving glue.  Charlie would later make an important discovery while seeing workers putting lacquer on the seats at Forbes Field.  That solved the cap’s weather problem.

One particular incident helped influence the Pittsburgh players to wear them, especially while on the base paths.   Paul Pettit was pinch running for the Pirates against the Cubs and as he sped into second to break up a double play, the shortstop’s bullet relay hit him squarely in the head, all it did was dent the helmet and he stayed in the game.  Joe Garagiola admitted that this is a what made a believer out of the Pirates team.  The Pittsburgh Pirates began wearing them in 1952.

The adoption of batters wearing helmets was sped up even more after Clem Labine of the Brooklyn Dodgers hit the Brave’s Joe Adcock in the head.  Adcock was unconscious for approximately fifteen minutes.  Adock claimed that the helmet probably saved his life.  The following day, the Brooklyn Dodgers ordered all their players to wear helmets.  Other teams quickly followed suit.

In 1971, MLB made it mandatory to were helmets.  Some veterans were ‘grand fathered’ from wearing them, such as Norm Cash, Bob Montgomery and Tony Taylor.  Montgomery retired in 1979.

Although helmets with earflaps were common in the amateur ranks, they were slow to gain popularity at the MLB level.  Earl Battey of the Minnesota Twins developed the first version but it was Tony Gonzalez who gets credit for using one at the MLB level.

In 1983, MLB made helmets with flaps mandatory.

On July 22, 2007, Mike Coolbough, the first base coach of the Tulsa Drillers died when he was hit by a foul ball.   Then November 8, 2007, MLB general managers decided to require base coaches to wear a helmet.

(Charlie Muse lived to see the evolution and popularity of his helmet, on May 5, 2005 the innovator behind the modern batting helmet died at 87 in Sun City Center, Florida).

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