Equipment Minutia – Catchers – 19th century

Sept. 24, 1883. Roxburgh, of the Leadvilles, catches without a mask. How long will he continue it probably depends upon the number of fouls he is called on to catch. One of the audience remarked recently it reminded him of the engineer’s opinion of the Indian who attempted to stop a train by standing on the track: “I admire his pluck” he said, “but blank his judgment.”

Toledo Blade

Look into the past, look behind you, look at where we’ve come. Have you ever caught? I mean squatted, sat knees bent, mask heavy on the face, sweat beading on the padding as the smell of dirt seems stronger each inning as it fills your nose as the batters stir in the box. Playing catcher is something no one forgets, it’s something most don’t want to do, it’s freaking hard is what it is. I did it in 6th grade, a long time ago and only for that year, but I remember it like it was yesterday and I treasure the moments that it occurred, as low level as they were they still were something to marvel at. Therefore it should be of no surprise that the catching position fascinates me and it really is a position that is like no other on the field, nor in most sports. To start the catcher sets up in foul territory, outside the fair area that the game of play occurs in, clothed in armor he squats and faces the opposite ay then the other players, how he functions in the play is hard to explain to the uninitiated, aside from the obvious (catch the pitchers throws) he has other functions that occur throughout the action of the game that demand explanation. In short he’s an interesting cog in the game and the position demands some study now and then and lately I’ve been stumbling across a lot of catchers stuff out there that I feel could use some organizing.

One thing I like about the catcher is that the catcher originally started off clothed as everyone else on the field was, this of course meant that without the armor of the catcher image we all see in our minds eye the player was often too close to the play on the field, or specifically the swing of the batter and the tendency for foul tips to be rocket backwards. Below are two images of the game in the 1860’s, 1870’s the first is likely Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey and the bottom is one that is from a later date. Note that in both the catcher is more standing then squatting, and without his armor he sits further back from the play, sneaking up only as the count would escalate or a runner looms from 3rd.

This represents the game once it was more organized then the above as evidenced by the grandstand and the uniforms

It’s the sheer fact of placement on the field that makes the catchers job not only important, but dangerous. Thus it’s not that odd that at certain points of the games lifespan that the men who toiled behind the plate found it pertinent to them keeping healthy that they try ins some manner to improve the working environment that they had to endure. In the early days of the game it was not uncommon for injury to occur and in some cases they could, and did result in death or constant irritation.

Pretty heady stuff, this of course was in an era that death often hit everyone’s family at a much higher rate then it does today, however it doesn’t mean that folks weren’t worried about it and it’s from these sort of incidents that we find the beginning of the basic toolset of the catchers we see today. They are as follows:

Catchers in baseball use the following *basic* equipment to help prevent injury while behind the plate:

Mask – To protect the face and head

Chest Protector – This protects the catcher’s upper body much in the manner that shin guards protect the catchers legs

Glove – Catchers use a thick glove to lower the impact of the ball on their hand

Shin Guards – To protect legs from errant pitches as well as sliding players and other impact associated with the position.

Protective Cup – protects the groin area from errant pitches.

Basic tenets to walking home after the game as opposed to being carried by your mates. The real question is who and where did these innovations first take place, or at least take root and make their way into the popular culture of the sport? To start we look at the basic tool, the mask. Oddly enough baseball catchers first accepted the mask as a tool for protection, while Hockey Goalies (who are most like the catcher in all the professional games played ) waited to institute that last in their effort to protect themselves. However it was the mask that first showed up on the diamond. In another twist of fate the mask was created on the campus of Harvard, and in many folks opinion it is likely the best thing to ever come off that campus in its existence. Crafted by a 3rd baseman (Fred Thayer) for a new catcher he admired (as a player). It seems that the Harvard Nine had a pitcher who had mastered the newest fade in the game, The Curveball, and because of the new nature of the pitch and it’s breaking closer to the plate the catchers who had to field the pitch had to inch closer to the swinging lumber. The Harvard’s catcher had what was termed as slight fear of that procedure and in a brainstorming session that ensued Thayer concocted an idea to craft a mask from a Fencing mask that was lying around campus.

Below is photo of the Harvard Nine, Thayer sits in the middle, second from the left, besides him sits the catcher with the mask on his knee.

Once the mask came into the game it like many other protective devices over the ages was deemed as “Less then Manley” Of course the Press had to post their opinion and in this case it found fault with the testosterone fueled old style players who played tough with their health and ridiculed others who refused to follow suit.

New York Clipper, Aug. 25, 1877:

INJURIES TO CATCHERS. – It is really surprising, in view of the serious injuries catchers, facing swift pitching close behind the bat, are subjected to, that the wire-mask – a perfect protection against such injuries – is not in more general use among professional catchers. The idea seems to prevail among a prejudiced few of the fraternity that it is not plucky or manly to wear the mask. It is nonsensical to run the risk of such severe injuries simply because a pack of foolish boys may ridicule you. Look at Clapp of the St. Louis nine, who now lies ill and disabled with a broken cheek-bone, due entirely to the fact of his not wearing a protective mask. We regard the Harvard collegian’s invention as one of the best things out for saving a catcher from dangerous injuries. These masks, improved by substituting an elastic fastening for the strap, can be had at Peck & Snyder’s.

By the mid 1880’s the catcher regularly donned the mask and the umpire also began to wear one (Richard Highman, who deserves an entry all his own) By 1887 we can start to see the chest protector appear more and more in the game. Often these appearances are not truly documented, many believe that Jack Clements was the first man to wear a chest protector when he caught for the Philadelphia entry in the short lived Union Association in 1884.

This most useful piece of base ball paraphernalia had a hard time getting a foothold. The catchers were slow in adopting it, and the spectators at first guyed it as baby-play. Clements, the great catcher of the Philadelphia League team was the first to wear a catcher’s protector in a game before a Cincinnati crowd. He was then back-stopping Jersey Bakely with the Keystones Unions, of Philadelphia, in 1884. Considerable fun as made of the protector, and the writer distinctly remembers that it was made the subject of adverse newspaper comment by one of the best base ball authorities in America. Now it is different. A catcher’s protector is of much importance to a back stop as are his mask and gloves. In other days a visitor to the dressing room of a ball team when the players were getting ready for a game did not need to ask who were the catchers. He could tell them by the black and blue spots that appeared on various parts of their anatomy, the result of hard thumps from unruly foul tips. The protector, mask and padded glove have made the life of a catcher a bed of roses to what it used to be.
Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Oct. 15, 1914

With Clements we find a rarity that vanished form the game long before we all were here on the planet. Clements is the last left handed catcher, and the all time leader in games played behind the dish and throw left handed.

Top 10 left handed throwing Catchers (games played)

GAMES                            G
1    Jack Clements              1073
2    Sam Trott                   272
3    Pop Tate                    202
4    Sy Sutcliffe                186
5    Bill Harbidge               128
6    Mike Hines                   99
7    John Humphries               75
8    Fred Tenney                  71
9    Art Twineham                 52
10   Phil Baker                   50

Despite the years catchers were often shaped the way they still are today… right Sal Fassaro?

The chest protector proved to be the tool that catapulted the catcher past the 80 game a year limit. Prior to its introduction the average catcher was able to log 75 games, the protection provided by the face mask and the chest protector helped St. Louis catcher Doc Bushong become the first catcher to top 100 games caught (107) in 1887.

The baseball cards of the late 1880’s displayed the innovated look of the chest protector as we can see below.

“Allison caught today in a pair of buckskin mittens, to protect his hands.”

June 28, 1870
Cincinnati Commercial

Despite the increased protection some old habits died hard, one was the use of a glove as a tool to lessen the pain of the pitched ball. Most on the field didn’t use a glove, catchers were the ones to change this though padded gloves were eschewed by most, though some (Deacon McGuire, Chief Zimmer) were said to line their small gloves with a steak to soften the blow of the harder throwers. By the look of the gloves on McGuire below it’s easy to see that something had to come along and save the hands of the catcher.

If any catcher could tell a tale about the changing of the equipment and the position in the 19th Century it would be McGuire, a player whose career began in 1884, back when catchers wore only masks and stood 10 feet behind the plate, safe from the swings and foul tips created by the batter. Back then the steal was underused and deemed less important, this coupled with the growing protection from the new tools within ten years McGuire would be squatting behind the plate (thanks to Chief Zimmer) and he would be using a large padded glove that was hinged, by the time he last played in 1912 he would have the pleasure of using shin guards, another tool that increased the games that a catcher could endure over the long season. As for the glove the inventor the padded catchers glove was (of course) a catcher, Joe Gunson was playing for the Kansas City Blues in 1887 when he crafted it together, he describes it below in a letter that resides at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I stitched together the fingers of my left-hand glove, thus practically making a “mitt”; and then I caught both games. It worked so well that I got to work. Took an old paint-pot wire handle, the old flannel belts from our castoff jackets, rolled the cloth around the ends of the finger, and padded the thumb. Then I put sheepskin with the wool on it in the palm and covered it with buckskin, thus completing the mitt, and the suffering and punishment we endured at the then fifty-foot pitching distances was all over.

In 1890, journeyman receiver Harry Decker invented the “Hinged Glove” also known as the “Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt,” a glove stitched to the back of a pad that covered the extended palm. These were literally flat padded wads of leather that got their pockets broken in on the job. The padded glove and protective armor allowed the catcher to get closer to the play and as the pitchers began to bring power and speed more and more into the game the need for this became more necessary.

With the advent of all this equipment we also see the need for someone to make a buck off of these ideas and innovations, this is where we see Al Spalding and the pages and pages of equipment that many a boy slobbered over back when horses still dragged ice around to every house on your grandfathers street, back when mens hands and sometimes their body and face looked like hell after catching game after game after game.

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