Innovations that debuted in Spring Training
When future Hall of Famers Joe Medwick and Pee Wee Reese each came to bat wearing a special caps on March 8, 1941, the accounts from that Spring Training game in Havana, Cuba, drew notice from newspapers around the country.
Today, it would be news – not to mention a rules violation – if a player did not wear protective headgear during an MLB game. But in 1941, a Spring Training innovation changed the National Pastime forever.
On that day, the Dodgers were playing the Cleveland Indians in Havana, Brooklyn’s spring home as it prepared for the coming regular season. While it remained unnoticed by fans in the stands, Brooklyn stalwarts Reese and Medwick each faced the opposing Cleveland pitcher with a “Brooklyn Safety Cap” atop his head.
Reform often comes slowly in baseball, and for generations there was powerful resistance to any form of head protection in the National Pastime. Though players were reluctant, occasional forms of batting helmets would appear over the decades, dating back to the 19th century, but were short-lived and soon abandoned. Previous protective head devices were often disregarded as too bulky, cumbersome and unsightly.
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But by the spring of 1941, the Dodgers, at the behest their red-headed president, Larry MacPhail, had seen enough. Because Reese and Medwick had suffered devastating beanings the previous year, the visionary who had brought night baseball games to the big leagues in 1935 now wanted his player investment protected with skull insurance.
“Both Pee Wee and Joe pronounced the helmets 100 percent okay,” MacPhail said. “If these helmets had been compulsory last year, we wouldn’t have lost Reese, Medwick or (Hugh) Casey by beanings.”
In 1940, Reese, a 21-year-old rookie shortstop with Brooklyn, was hit by Chicago Cubs righty Jake Mooty and had to spend two weeks in the hospital, while Medwick, recently acquired from the Cardinals for four players and $125,000, was later was beaned by the Cardinals’ Bob Bowman and was bothered by double vision for the remainder of the season.
“I never thought anyone could hit me in the head,” said Reese, who lost sight of the ball in the white shirts of the Wrigley Field fans sitting in the centerfield bleachers, “but that’s what happens if you can’t see the ball. I stepped right into it. They took me out on a stretcher, and I was out for 18 days.”
Telling the assembled media after the exhibition against the Indians that they had just witnessed “the biggest thing that has happened to the game since night baseball,” MacPhail explained that Reese and Medwick had just adorned what he called “a protector for batsmen” without anyone noticing. The new device, while resembling a regulation baseball cap, in fact had plastic protectors inside.
“Every player in the Brooklyn organization will wear this protector,” said MacPhail. “And I want to make a prediction that within a year every player in the major leagues will be wearing it.
“But the objection I heard from other club owners was that the players never would wear them,” he added. “Well, they wouldn’t wear a thing that was cumbersome and so conspicuous that everybody could see it. My players are solid for this one, and they’re all going to use it.”
Hall of Fame second baseman Billy Herman admitted years later that he wouldn’t wear one of the newfangled caps until MacPhail made the team wear them.
Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack, the legendary skipper of the Philadelphia Athletics, would offer his opinion in March 1941, a time when serious beanings in the game brought renewed attention to the issue.
“The man who invents a helmet that insures absolute protection will make a fortune,” the 78-year-old Mack said. “Some players may feel now it would reflect on their gameness to wear one but the time is coming when they will be standard equipment.”
Luckily for the Dodgers, when outfielder Pete Reiser was struck on the right side of his head by a pitch from the Phillies’ Ike Pearson in April 1941, subsequent x-rays showed no skull fractures. The attending doctor said the plastic protective plate which all Dodgers wear in their caps had saved Reiser from more serious injury, the ball connecting partly on the protector and partly on the right cheekbone, and the player would miss only two weeks.
With the evidence of the Reiser incident, the Senators and Giants announced that they too would be wearing a version of the new protective cap in 1941. But like previous attempts, these new helmets soon fell out of favor among players.
But common sense soon prevailed after decades of experiments, innovation and modification and nowadays it’s hard to imagine a big league hitter facing a pitcher with just a cap on his head. By 1958, both the American and National Leagues made it mandatory for its batters to wear some form of protective headgear; starting in 1971, all players were required to wear batting helmets.
“I may not look so hot in this thing,” said Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell, referring to a batting helmet, “but I’d rather be alive than pretty.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum