Ray Chapman and the Delayed Adoption of Batting Helmets

by Nicholas Frankovich

Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch 82 years ago today. At St. Lawrence Hospital on West 163rd Street, about a mile from the Polo Grounds, where the Yankees were hosting Cleveland, doctors operated on him but to no avail. A priest gave him last rites. The overflowing congregation at his funeral at St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Cleveland the following Friday, August 20, included city officials. Somewhere in the ton of flowers banking the sanctuary was an arrangement in the shape of a baseball diamond with players at all the positions except short.

Chapman is the only player to have died from an injury sustained in the course of a major-league game. His death sparked some talk about the need for batting helmets, but that faded pretty fast.

Baseball culture had a history of resisting protective equipment. It was felt to be unmanly. Early ballplayers caught line drives barehanded before gloves, or “mittens,” began to lose their stigma in the 1870s. Catchers in particular were expected to tough it out without shield or armor: Roger Bresnahan of the Giants “met with a lot of flak” for wearing behind the plate what in 1907 were considered some fairly elaborate tools of ignorance.

Against that background, it’s not surprising that the batting helmet was so slow to catch on. But what explains the timing of its adoption by both major leagues in the 1950s? Why not earlier, when the memory of Chapman was fresher? Or why not later? The National League began to require helmets in 1956; the American Leaague, in 1958.

That’s about when hard plastic helmets began to take hold in the NFL. They displaced the largely leather helmets that had been common for decades and that the NFL began to require in the 1940s.

Fashion, in other words, may be part of the answer: Football players wearing plastic helmets may have made it socially safe for baseball players to wear the equivalent. Another part of the answer involves technology. Postwar advances in polymer science made possible a kind of helmet that was both wieldier and more effective. It was something that both sports, baseball and football, could look at and say, Yep, that’ll do.

Right Field

Brief chronicles of our sporting times.