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Branch Rickey’s Baseball Revolution: Helmets

By Jason Turbow, June 19, 2016
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Original artwork by Joey Enos.

When the Pirates acquired outfielder Sid Gordon prior to the 1954 season, he was an 11-year veteran and a two-time All-Star, and so was surprised upon being presented at his introductory press conference with a batting helmet that he was expected to don before a picture could be taken. Eying the equipment warily, he looked toward General Manager Branch Rickey with disbelief. “Is this necessary?” he moaned.

“Yes, it is,” responded the GM.[1]

Rickey had brought baseball’s helmet vanguard to life in September 1952, making the most profound statement about player safety in the sport’s history, and he wasn’t about to ease up for Gordon.

Seventy years old and in the pro game for nearly a half-century, Rickey found himself unable to tolerate more than three decades’ worth of middling safety advances following the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, who’d been hit in the head by a pitch in 1920. It wasn’t just that Rickey all but invented the modern batting helmet—it was that after doing so, he mandated that every member of his Pirates team wear one, at bat and in the field, manager and coaches included.

A look at photos of the era provides all the evidence necessary. Baseball cards of Pirates players between 1954 and 1958 show them bedecked in hard hats, even while fielding their positions or striking windup poses on the mound.

Sid Gordon 1955 Bowman
Source:  The Trading Card Database

Gordon was hardly the only player to balk. Until then, the most widespread protective measure taken by hitters was a thin plastic liner worn inside a regular baseball cap, which was virtually undetectable from the grandstand. Rickey’s helmets were not that. Players said they resembled flowerpots, or something a spaceman would wear. Ted Williams vehemently opposed them, even once they became vogue throughout the league, as a distraction to his batting.

Early on, children sitting behind the Pittsburgh bullpen took to bouncing marbles off of relievers’ heads. People said that the only way Rickey could get the moribund Pirates out of the basement was to attach lamps to their miner’s helmets.

Still, it seemed that the exec was on to something. In April 1954, The Sporting News editorialized strongly on the side of safety, calling the headgear “common sense,” and writing that “use of helmets, especially in the field, is still not as widespread as it should be.[2]

It made little difference to the players. “We hated them,” recalled Pirates catcher Joe Garagiola. “Guys on other teams would make fun of us.”[3]

“Only sissies wore helmets then,” said Mario Cuomo, who before becoming governor of New York was a minor leaguer in the Pirates chain.[4]

Then Joe Adcock got beaned.

Adcock didn’t even play for the Pirates. In August 1954, the Milwaukee Braves slugger was drilled above the left ear by a pitch from Dodgers pitcher Clem Labine. He was and knocked unconscious, saved from traumatic injury only by the helmet he had only recently decided to wear. When shaken players from both teams visited him in the hospital, they found him maintaining a grip on his dented hardware, claiming again and again that it had saved his life. Adcock had acquired the thing after teammate Andy Pafko was beaned on Opening Day, but it took him nearly four months to start wearing it. Hell, apart from the Pirates, helmets could scarcely be found across the big league landscape.

“Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept new ideas.  I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms.”
~Branch Rickey

“If Rickey hasn’t done another thing for baseball,” Adcock said in the aftermath of his injury, “he contributed plenty in this cap.”[5]

The helmet had come about during the 1952 season, when Rickey tasked Pittsburgh’s traveling secretary, Charlie Muse, to spearhead a production initiative. Along with designer Ed Crick and local engineer Ralph Davis, who had already put together a prototype, Muse developed a fiberglass model with sponge rubber padding. It was flocked with felt on the outside, to better resemble an actual cap.

At first, Rickey intended only to fabricate helmets for his own team, but the favorable response from the sporting press inspired him to expand his scope. Thus was founded American Baseball Cap (ABC, Inc.), featuring among its backers players such as Ralph Kiner and George Sisler, as well as a number of executives in the Pirates organization.[6]

The helmet’s importance was brought home on May 17 of the following year, in a game against the Cubs. Pitcher Paul Pettit, wearing a helmet as mandated, walked in the third inning, then raced toward second when Paul Smith hit a double-play grounder. Shortstop Roy Smalley’s relay to first base, however, struck Pettit flush on the forehead from a distance of about 10 feet. The ball split the runner’s helmet nearly in half, caroming some 25 feet into the air. [7] “My guy merely blinked,” Pirates Manager Fred Haney marveled. “He was unhurt. Without the helmet he’d have been killed.”[8]

“The next day, everybody is wearing a helmet,” recalled Garagiola, the catcher that day. “I mean, scouts, vendors, secretaries. Everybody.”[9]

Once, as Pittsburgh was losing badly to Brooklyn, Haney went to the mound to summon his third pitcher of the inning in such a state of befuddlement that he forgot his helmet. Unfortunately for the manager, the reliever he called upon was pitcher Murry Dickson, the only player to refuse Rickey’s mandate. As Haney returned to the dugout, he heard the booming voice of the GM from the box seats: “Judas Priest, Haney, what’s going on out there?” Rickey was less concerned with the score than the fact that two members of his team had been standing helmetless on the mound. “I actually forgot we were losing,” said Haney later, “and looked all over the darn dugout for my helmet.”[10]

That Dixon was Pittsburgh’s number one starter didn’t save him; he was traded to Philadelphia after the season.[11]

Rickey’s obsession wasn’t entirely altruistic, of course. In 1952, the year he founded ABC, Inc., the company did $6,000 worth of business. Within six years, protective headgear was mandatory for every Major League batter, and Rickey’s company cleared $200,000.

This development was not insignificant. Rickey ran the Pirates with extravagance, including chartering flights for every one of his team’s road trips in 1954—a huge outlay considering that air travel was rare even for the richest clubs—and the Pirates lost $185,000 during his first four years at the helm. Owners John Galbreath and Tom Johnson were going broke trying to subsidize Rickey’s spending, so to bolster them, the GM bought $200,000 worth of stock in the team, making him the largest shareholder behind Galbreath.

Rickey stepped down as Pirates GM following the 1955 season. In the meantime, player complaints—particularly from the pitchers—led him to limit his helmet mandate only to hitters and base runners. By that time, of course, the sea change in helmet use was obvious, and the exec was happy to concede the point.



[1] The Sporting News, January 20, 1954.
[2] The Sporting News, April 7, 1954.
[3] New York Times, August 18, 2009.
[4] Steve Rushin, The 34-Ton Bat, Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
[5] NEA, August 30, 1954.
[6] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 11, 1957.
[7] The Sporting News, May 27, 1953.
[8] New York Times, May 26, 1955.
[9] New York Times, August 18, 2009.
[10] Albuquerque Journal, May 6, 1954.
[11] UP, July 16, 1953.

 

 

 

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