It’s no secret that over the years catchers seem to take more and more abuse behind the plate. As a glorified backstop, catchers must endure physical punishment with little time to complain.
Catchers are expected to catch all nine innings with foul balls taking shots off their bodies, taking wild pitches off their chests, and collisions at the plate. The first “catchers gear” was donned by Hall of Farmer Roger Bresnahan of the Giants 1907, which included for the first-time shin guards. Can you imagine catching now with exposed shins? Spectators however were unimpressed with the new body protection and ridiculed Besnahan.
Masks were the first priority for a catcher in the mid-late 1800s. The first invented catchers masked was created by an Ivy League man by the name of Fred Thayer in 1876 who used a fencing mask and maneuvered it into a catcher’s mask. The mask consisted of a forehead and chin rest and a wire cage, with straps to secure the mask to the catcher’s head. This mask was the first in the Spalding Catalog in the 1878 season and adaptions followed quickly as the masks multiple bars made vision beyond the mask difficult.
Better visibility was on the mind of inventor George Barnard when he patented his “open view” mask in 1888. The main different was the wire basket cages of the mask and the removal of the vertical bar for better visibility, without compensating structural strength. Barnard also saw the main part of the neck was exposed and added another bar to that area to provide extra protection.
Next came the “platform mask” which was a one-piece casting with horizontal crossbars instead of soldered mesh. This was patented by umpire James Johnstone in 1921 and provided springier, more shock absorbing action in the 1920s. The design had a padded oval surround with two cross bars. The carbon- steel wire used is still a preferred material for catchers to this day. The carbon-steel wire is flexible, but strong and it allows reduced shock, while still retaining structural integrity.
By the end of the twentieth century we’ve seen the mask evolve into something completely different. It resembles something of a hockey goalies mask and was introduced by catcher Charlie O’Brien. The new mask is made of high-tech polycarbon and protects the top, sides, and back of the head. The cage-like opening in the front is bigger than that of a normal mask and increases the peripheral vision of the catcher, while deflecting the ball rather than hitting the catcher flush as per previous masks. At 50 ounces the helmet is about 10 ounces heavier than the normal helmet/mask combination due to is polycarbon structure that goes completely around a catcher’s head.