Wednesday, April 11, 2012

This Day in Baseball History (Catcher Shin Guards Worn for 1st Time)

April 11, 1907—They all laughed at Columbus, the Gershwin brothers told us. Likewise, when Roger Bresnahan squatted behind home plate, the crowd on opening day for the New York Giants couldn’t stop laughing at the bulky new get-up of the team’s catcher.

A good thing they were in the stands, well out of Bresnahan’s reach. The catcher was a mirror of John McGraw—a competitive, fiery Irish-American who cared for nothing but winning, and who was ready to take on anybody who dared cross him. And this day, at the Polo Grounds, there were many people willing to do so, and they erupted in uproarious laughter when a foul tip rocketed off his new leg accouterments in the fifth inning of the game against the Phillies.

Well, you can’t blame either party entirely in this instance. That day, by the standards of the American diamond, Bresnahan’s attire was strange. The word in the last sentence that makes all the difference, of course, is American. British sports fans would have seen something like this, all right, on their cricket goaltenders. For U.S. fans who hadn’t beheld that particular sight previously, Bresnahan would likely have looked like a bumbling medieval knight.

They were profoundly mistaken. Bresnahan had been inspired to take the next evolutionary steps in shielding himself and others at his position from their usual wear and tear. God only knows how many catchers following Bresnahan would have succumbed to injury even sooner had he not tried out shin guards. 

Bresnahan was a player willing to try anything—even all nine positions on field. (I heard of the Minnesota Twins’ Cesar Tovar doing this in a single game—still, whether in such a concentrated instance or over a career, it’s quite a feat.) If Bresnahan was willing to try a new position, why not a new idea?

This one he discovered quite by accident, in a homeplate collision with the Phillies’ backstop Red Dooin. When he looked up, Bresnahan  couldn’t believe what he saw: papier mache shin guards worn under the stockings to protect Dooin’s heavily scarred legs. A problem loomed in Bresnahan’s case: he was considerably bulkier than the lithe Phillies catcher. The white cricket shinguards that put Giant fans (and the team’s rivals) in such convulsions was one remedy.

Shin guards represented the next evolutionary step—really, the last one—in the catcher apparatus that a later practitioner, Harold “Muddy” Ruel, would term “the tools of ignorance.” (Ruel, when he wasn’t calling signals for Walter Johnson in the 1920s, had learned to use language in creative ways as an attorney.) The rubber-mouth protector, the catcher’s mitt, the chest protector and the face mask had already been invented. 
But finding shin guards had become an increasing necessity, as baseball rules adopted in the 1880s had stipulated that the final strike, including foul tips, had to be caught on the fly. Staying close had the additional advantage of helping in “framing” pitches and fielding bunts. But proximity to the batter also made catchers far more prone to, at least, all kinds of little nicks, and sometimes far worse.

Bresnahan  was always on the alert for something to protect him. Part of it had to with being hospitalized after being beaned. A batting helmet he devised afterward—kind of like half of a leather football helmet, worn on the side of the head where the player batted from—never really caught on. But after some adjustments to cut down on bulkiness, Bresnahan’s shin guards did, as did his use of  leather-bound  rolls of padding in his wire catcher's mask.

Versatility, a willingness to experiment, and shrewdness (he caught Christy Mathewson’s three shutouts in the 1905 World Series) led to Bresnahan’s posthumous election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. This year, he’s been nominated to the Irish-American Baseball Hall ofFame. The “Duke of Tralee” (an incorrect moniker bestowed by a sportswriter) is hardly among the more conspicuous nominees on the ballot, but maybe his election—and pieces such as the one you’re now reading—will spread his fame.

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