There was a time before catcher’s masks, an era when catchers wore tightly wound rubberbands around their teeth to protect from getting them knocked out. As with any popular new past time, baseball evolved quickly. Cincinnati Red Stockings’ founder and shortstop George Wright began to use a mouthpiece in the 1860’s. He patented it and made a pile of money selling his mouthguard on the open market. While many catchers were saving teeth, there wasn’t much they could do for the rest of their face, until the mid-1870’s. That’s when a few fellows at Harvard started talking about making a mask that would change the catching position forever.
The popular tale begins in 1875 with a late season game between arch-rivals Harvard and Yale. Somewhere in the early innings, Harvard pitcher Harold Ernst came to bat. As the first pitch approached he jumped back, startled by the extreme new swerving movement on the ball as it crossed the plate. Ernst struck out on three pitches. The rest of the Harvard lineup also seemed to be swinging at air. Ernst watched Yale pitcher Charles Avery’s throwing motion very closely for the rest of the day. Yale went on to easily defeat Harvard for the sixth time in their last seven meetings. After the game, Ernst knew that to be one of the best he would have to learn the delivery of this tantalizing pitch. In the off-season he went about teaching himself how to throw what we now call the curve ball. The effects of Ernst’s offseason work were immediate. On opening day in 1876, throwing as many curves as his elbow could stand, Ernst no-hit the powerhouse Lowell, Massachusetts club. He led Harvard to a 25-12 record that season and established himself as one the pioneers of pitching.
The curve ball was considered by most players and spectators as the best new pitch in baseball- but also the riskiest. Catchers everywhere were having a heck of a time holding on to pitches, causing a rise in errors as well as a rise in mangled jaws and noses. Harvard catcher Howard Thatcher wasn’t returning for the 1877 season, but he had helped to prepare James Alexander Tyng (man with mustache in photo to the right) as his replacement. Tyng was Harvard’s best all-around athlete and would later go on to become the first Harvard alum to play in a major league game (1879 Boston Red Caps). Like Thatcher before him, Tyng was having a terrible time catching Ernst. His face was taking a beating and he was becoming increasingly worried about permanent disfigurement. This safety concern prompted Player/Manager, Fred Thayer (man with hat in photo to the right) to consider how to boost Tyng’s confidence and protect his face:
"In one or two games in which he caught behind the bat, he had been hit by foul tips and had become more or less timid. He was, by all odds, the most available man as catcher for the season of ’77, and it was up to me to find some way to bring back his confidence,"
Thayer had been brewing an idea for a while, ever since some dugout chats he had once held with former catcher Howard Thatcher. Back in 1875, after Thatcher had taken a few too many foul tips to the noggin, the two men had discussed how to better protect a catcher without impeding his visibility. Realizing he could no longer sit on the idea, Thayer decided a fencing mask provided the closest blueprint to what they needed. In the winter of 1876 he hired a local tinsmith to construct a "bird cage" mask with padding in the chin and forehead area. During practices Tyng and Thayer experimented and revised the mask several times until they got it just right for Tyng’s face. On April 12th, 1877 James Tyng became the first man to wear a catcher’s mask in a professional game. The reaction in the media was mixed to say the least:
"The new mask was proved a complete success, since it entirely protects the face and head and adds greatly to the confidence of the catcher, who need not feel that he is every moment in danger of a life-long injury. To the ingenious inventor of this mask we are largely indebted for the excellent playing of our new catcher, who promises to excel the fine playing of those who have previously held this position."
"There is a good deal of beastly humbug in contrivances to protect men from things that don’t happen. There is about as much sense in putting a lightning rod on a catcher as a mask."
Thayer received a patent for the mask in 1878. Later in the year, A.G Spalding and Brothers Company, the leading sporting goods dealer in the country, began selling the Thayer Catcher’s Mask for $3.00 in their catalogue. Slowly, catcher’s started to use it, but it wasn’t until 1879 that sales took off because of a rule change that did away with the one bounce rule. It was now necessary for a catcher to catch a two-strike foul tip in the air in order to record an out. With catchers moving closer to the batter in order to take advantage of this new ordinance, the catcher’s mask became indispensible. Although Fred Thayer received the patent, it should be noted that both Howard Thatcher and James Tyng also layed partial claims to the invention of the first catcher’s mask.