The Catcher’s Mask in Baseball

April 12th Celebrates The Catcher’s Mask in Baseball

Today on Days to remember we celebrate how on April 12th 1877, the catcher’s mask was used in a base game for the time by James Alexander Tyng.

So how did the first catcher’s mask in baseball come about?

Our 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 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 to consider how to boost Tyng’s confidence and protect his face:

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.

Written & Designed by JD Mitchell


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