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The History of Catcher’s Masks

Catcher’s masks have become an essential piece of protective gear, but early catchers didn’t wear them at all. Instead, they wore only a rubber mouth guard — no mask, no chest guard, no shin guards, and surprisingly, they didn’t even have a glove! Due to a lack of protection, they generally stood a few feet behind home plate and caught pitches on the bounce. However, when the curveball was developed in the late 1860s or 1870s, catchers needed to get closer to home plate. Because this put them in danger of being hit by the ball or the bat, the need for a catcher’s mask arose. A Harvard student named Fred Thayer, captain of the Harvard Nine and the team’s third baseman, was inspired by the fencing team’s face masks to create a similar protective mask for his team’s catcher, James Tyng. Thayer visited a tinsmith and had him modify a fencing mask to increase the visibility, thus creating the first catcher’s mask. It was worn by James Tyng during an 1877 game in Lynn, Massachusetts. Thayer then patented his catcher’s mask in 1878. After some initial resistance from professional teams who considered the protective gear “unmanly,” the catcher’s mask came into use in professional baseball. Over time, several improvements were made to the original design, the most significant of which was George Barnard’s 1888 addition of a bar for neck protection. (His design also removed of one of the horizontal bars on the main mask to improve visibility.) The invention of the catcher’s mask protected catchers, but it also changed the state of play, because with adequate protection, catchers were able to crouch by home plate and form a target with their hands in the strike zone, as they still do today. And of course, the humble catcher’s mask is still an important piece of safety equipment for all catchers today.

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