Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: Cooperstown, NY
Cooperstown Confidential (August 12, 2004) Part 1
Helmets Head On
With John Olerud making recent headlines as the newest member of the New York Yankees, the rather esoteric subject of players wearing helmets in the field grabs hold of my slim-witted attention. Of all the current major leaguers, Olerud is the only one who wears a batting helmet at his position in the field, excluding those ever-endangered members of the catching fraternity. Olerud’s choice of headgear stems from a near tragic incident he endured during his college years; while attending Washington State University in 1989, Olerud suffered a brain hemorrhage and an aneurysm during a morning workout. Though he recovered, doctors advised him to wear a protective batting helmet while playing first base or pitching (he was a two-position player in college), in order to protect against line drives and collisions with baserunners that might result in contact with the skull.
By now it would probably be safe for Olerud to discard the helmet in favor of a soft cap, but matters of habit and superstition have compelled him to continue wearing the hard hat at all times throughout his professional career. While he is the lone active major leaguer to wear a helmet in the field, he is by no means the first to do so in the history of the game. It’s happened from time to time over the past 50 years, dating back to the first team that made full-temple helmets a permanent addition to their inventory of baseball equipment.
1953 Pirates: During the 1953 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to permanently adopt batting helmets, taking the field wearing rather primitive fiberglass “miner’s caps” at the mandate of general manager Branch Rickey, who also owned stock in the company producing the helmets. Under Rickey’s orders, the Pirate players had to wear the helmets both at bat and in the field, which explains all of those old black-and-white photographs of 1950s Pirates like Toby Atwell, Bob Friend, and Nellie King wearing helmets in every pose and posture. Even manager Fred Haney joined the helmet-wearing brigade, apparently to protect himself from banging his head against the top of the dugout when making visits to the mound. The helmets became a permanent feature for Pirate hitters, but within a few weeks players began disavowing their use in the field, partly because of their awkwardly heavy feel and partly because of the remote possibility of a batted or thrown ball striking a fielder in the head. Once the Pirates discarded the helmets on defense, the trend disappeared from the game for nearly the next decade.
Felix Torres: An obscure infielder for the Los Angeles Angels during their early years, the Spanish-speaking Torres was probably best known for the curious way that he answered the phone, always greeting a caller with the words, “Hello baby.” More pertinent to this article, Torres ended the drought of helmets in the field when he started wearing one at third base during the 1962 season. Torres’ decision to sport a helmet might have been influenced by an incident he once witnessed in a minor league game. Playing for Class-D Douglas (Georgia), Torres and his mates stopped off for a series in a small town called Sandersville. During the game on enemy turf, one of his teammates, a pitcher named Willie DeJesus, started to warm up in the bullpen. Shortly after beginning his warm-up tosses, DeJesus heard some heckling from fans in the stands and responded with a few verbal retorts of own. The fans, not taking kindly to the unwanted response, began throwing bottles and cans at the relief pitcher. Torres, several of his teammates, and his manager came to the aid of DeJesus, eventually bringing the incident to an end.
Richie Allen: Helmets in the field started to become trendy when the Phillies’ star felt compelled to wear one in left field as a means of security against an unruly crowd. Often a verbal target of fans in Philadelphia, Allen one day found himself bombarded by hundred of pennies being thrown by fans in the left field stands at Connie Mack Stadium. The demonstration of violence convinced Allen to wear a helmet in the field for the rest of his career, whether playing in left field or at first base. Even after being traded away by Philadelphia, Scott continued the practice while playing in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Oakland. For awhile, Allen was the only major leaguer to use a helmet when fielding his position, an oddity that only added to his uniquely controversial persona.
George “Boomer” Scott: Like Allen, Scott began wearing a helmet in the field because of unruly fan reaction, but his decision came in response to actions of the road fans, not the hometown faithful at Fenway Park. Given his brush with such violent strains of fan anger, the Red Sox’ infielder decided to make the helmet a permanent addition to his baseball wardrobe. Looking awkward atop his large head and massive frame, the clunky helmet belied Scott’s fielding grace; “Boomer” won eight Gold Gloves for the Red Sox and the Brewers. Yes, soft hands and agile footwork overcome hard helmets at all times… On an unrelated side note, Scott also used to wear a distinctive necklace made of what appeared to be ivory tusks. When a reporter asked Scott exactly what the necklace consisted of, the oversized Boomer responded: “Second baseman’s teeth.”
Horace Clarke: I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why Clarke wore a helmet while patrolling second base for the Yankees; perhaps it had something to do with his fear of being upended on double-play takeout slides. (Column contributor Repoz asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere about the reasoning behind Clarke’s helmet; Gamere says it may have stemmed from a 1969 incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball.) During his eight seasons in New York, Clarke received constant criticism from fans and media for his inability to turn the double play. Rather than attempting to pivot on double plays at the bag, Clarke often bailed out, jumping out of the way of runners while holding onto the baseball. Clarke, whose range to his right also left something to be desired, was so vilified in the Big Apple that fans once booed him during pre-game introductions on Opening Day and one writer repeatedly referred to him as “Horrible Horace.” That’s Horrible Horace with a helmet, please.
Joe Ferguson: Primarily a catcher during his major league career, Ferguson also played in right field from time to time. The time-sharing plan began early in his career with the Dodgers, who already had a fine defensive catcher in Steve Yeager but wanted to make room for the power-hitting Ferguson in their batting order. When the 200-pound Ferguson took to the outfield—a position that he hated to play—he made sure to take his hard hat with him. As with Clarke, I haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact reason, but it may have had something to do with a lack of confidence in catching the baseball. Ferguson once lost two fly balls in the sun during the same game, making his head an easy target for a ball dropping out of the sky. While Ferguson’s fielding prowess in right field sometimes made his managers nervous, he didn’t lack for ability in throwing the baseball. Playing for the Dodgers during the 1974 World Series, Ferguson unleashed a 290-foot throw from right field to the catcher, taking a potential run off the board for the Oakland A’s. Ferguson certainly didn’t lack confidence in his throwing, among other abilities. He once told a sportswriter, “I believe I can be a better catcher than Johnny Bench.” Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way, but then again, Bench could never play the outfield quite like Fergie.
Dave Parker: One need look no further than the incident that took place on July 12, 1980, to find the motivation that “The Cobra” needed to start wearing a helmet in right field. During the first game of a doubleheader against the Dodgers at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, one particularly nasty hometown fan fired a nine-volt transistor battery at the beleaguered Parker, who had come under criticism for playing poorly while saddled with an injured knee. The battery barely missed Parker’s head, whizzing by his ear before landing on the artificial turf. Stunned by the near miss, Parker walked off the field and didn’t return for the rest of the doubleheader. Amazingly, the battery episode wasn’t the first time that Parker found himself in the line of fan fire. Earlier in the 1980 season, another idiotic fan had hurled a bag of nuts and bolts in Parker’s direction. Thankfully, the bag missed its target, as did the nine-volt battery.
Author of the book, Tales From The Mets Dugout, available from Sports Publishing.