history of batting helmets

A Look Into the History of Baseball Helmets

Today, it’s hard to imagine a complete baseball uniform without the helmet. If a batter walked up to home plate missing that protective wear, spectators would hold their breath. Why would a player risk serious injury as balls whizzed by their head? Actually, for most of baseball’s history, players didn't wear helmets at all—or at least not the helmets we think of today. According to Major League Baseball (MLB), it wasn’t until 1971 that players were required to wear helmets when going up to bat. Even since then, the baseball helmet has evolved into the iconic piece of safety gear it is today. So, how did the baseball helmet develop? Why are they so important to the sport and how can we expect them to change in the future?

Baseball Helmet Basics

A batting helmet is the plastic, protective device worn on the heads of all offensive players while they’re out on the field. Despite the name, helmets must be worn even while on deck and on base. Since 2007, base coaches have also been required to wear batting helmets. Currently, Rawlings manufactures the official MLB batting helmet. Their current helmet series is 130 times stronger than standard plastic and made from carbon fiber. The single earflap design protects the player’s face and jawline. The helmet’s look also matches the rest of the team’s uniform.

The Early Days of the Baseball Helmet

Baseball’s first years were brutal. In fact, pitchers intentionally hurled balls at batters in an attempt to throw off their focus. This strategy wasn’t considered poor sportsmanship—it’s just how the game was played. Though some players wore basic, padded caps for protection, most chose to forgo extra protection. Even when Cleveland Indians batter Ray Chapman died after getting beaned by pitcher Carl Mays in 1920, teams and players alike were hesitant to instill stricter regulations. It would take decades for the batting helmet to become integral to baseball safety. So, why the hesitancy to adopt basic protective gear? In the ultra-masculine sports world, some players thought helmets made them appear weak. Others found the extra equipment distracting or too heavy. Either way, they’d rather risk injury—or even death—to play baseball their way. It’d take over twenty years after Chapman’s death for a team to mandate head protection. In 1941, it was the Brooklyn Dodgers that became the first team to require head protection. After two players experienced serious head injuries, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail required the entire team to wear helmets. They were designed much like a regular baseball hat, but with protective plate inserts. These caps didn’t offer the protection we see today, but it was a step in the right direction.

A Safer Baseball Helmet

In the early 1950s, the earliest versions of today’s hardened batting helmets began to emerge. Though protection still wasn’t required by the National or American Leagues, several high-profile players including the Yankees Phil Rizzuto and the Cubs Ralph Kiner began using reinforced helmets or protective liners. As more players and coaches opened up to the benefits of head protection, they also began experimenting with new possibilities. One famous innovator is Branch Rickey, the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager. He designed his own style of reinforced, flocked caps made to mimic regular baseball caps. They were dubbed Ricky-style caps. In 1956, the first major regulation regarding head protection was enacted. The National League mandated that all batters must wear Ricky-style cap or inserts. The American League followed suit in 1958. Once players became more comfortable with head protection, batting helmet advancement took off. In the 1960s, the strong molded helmets we see today grew in popularity. Soon, flaps to further protect the face were also introduced. Finally, in 1971, the MLB made plastic protective helmets mandatory for all players. The only exception were for a few grandfathered in veterans. Then, in 1983, face-protecting flaps also became required for all players.

Today’s Baseball Helmets and Beyond

Over the past forty years, any debate about whether batting helmets should be required have vanished. Instead, the focus has shifted into how to make helmets stronger, lighter and more breathable. Flap extensions are also becoming more prevalent to combat facial injuries. First introduced in 2013, the MLB currently uses the S100 PRO COMP series batting helmet. Made of aerospace-grade carbon fiber composite, it can withstand the impact of a 100 mph pitch. This is much stronger than the 68 mph tested on past models. So, what’s next for baseball helmets? Likely more protection—possibly for more positions. By recognizing the danger behind a hard hit ball, some pitchers, like the Met’s Alex Torres, are beginning to use head protection as well. Protection for pitcher’s isn’t catching on quickly, but maybe, like the slow evolution of the batting helmet, we’ll look back wondering why they didn’t catch on sooner.
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