Baseball Equipment History

Once called "the tools of ignorance" by major league catcher Herold "Muddy" Ruel in the 1920s, baseball equipment not only became an accepted part of the game, but necessary, saving players from serious injury to their hands, face, head, chest, and shins. It wasn't always that way, but perhaps injury has been the world's best guide to the kinds of baseball equipment that would evolve over the years.

The early nineteenth century didn't need a lot of baseball equipment, just a bat and ball. The bat went from flat on one side to being round, from being made of only wood to a hybrid of technologically modern materials. And when most early ball players would have much rather injured a hand or gotten whacked in the head than wear protective gear, legendary players stepped up to the plate and put the world at ease about making it not only acceptable, but necessary to cushion the blows. What would a catcher be today without the mitt? Uniforms changed, from plain with colorful accents to distinguish positions or teams, to pinstripes, to the uniform we see today. Baseball equipment is a whole new ballgame from where it all began.

The Ball

Baseball equipment began with the ball. The evolution of early baseball equipment saw dramatic changes in the ball itself. From about 1857 until 1872, what was at first a baseball hand-made by either the players themselves or local merchants, and with no standard weight attached to them, the baseball would change in size and shape until it settled into one similar to what we see today. The earliest baseballs were very lightweight and soft, were smaller than the modern baseball, and were made of yarn or string surrounding a core covered by a single piece of leather stitched together. They called this a "lemon peel" or "rose pedal", and it consisted of four sides sewn together to form an "X". The baseball was medium-to-dark brown. In 1854, a meeting between three New York baseball teams settled on a standard weight and size of the baseball. It would weigh from five-and-a-half to six ounces, and be two and three-quarter inches in diameter. In 1857, the diameter of the baseball grew slightly, making the ball about ten inches around, and weighing six ounces. In 1858, baseballs began to be made in factories in Natick, Mass., factories that were the first to stitch two pieces together to create the modern figure-eight design, supposedly created by Ellis Drake and duplicated by brothers George and Harry Wright. One of the first famous producers of the baseball was member of the Atlantic Club in Brooklyn, Harvey Ross, who eventually sold his baseballs all over the country. At another baseball convention in 1858, it was decided that the baseball's core would be made of India-rubber, wrapped with yarn, and covered with leather. Around this time it became customary that the winner of a baseball game would be given the ball used in that game as a trophy.

In 1860 the baseball dimensions changed slightly, to about five and three-quarter ounces and between nine and three-quarter and ten inches around, while the insides of the ball remained the same. John Van Horn of the Baltic Club in New York became the leading manufacturer of baseballs in the early 1860s. His legendary "lively ball" earned Van Horn the reputation of being the "greatest ball maker of the nineteenth century." The white baseball was introduced in 1861 because it was easier to see against the baseball field's wooded backdrop.

Dimensions continued to change, the baseball becoming slightly smaller. And when the National Association of Baseball Players was created in 1871 to rule on such things as baseball equipment, while the weight of the ball remained unchanged, the circumference was reduced a little and would remain unchanged until the twentieth century.

For just shy of a century, the official ball of the National Baseball League was that of Albert Spalding in 1878, and was replaced by Rawlings in 1977. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley in the early 1970s tried to introduce the idea of the orange baseball, and fans loved it, but major league baseball never officially accepted it. Today the baseball weighs five ounces, nine inches in circumference, and contains 108 stitches forming the figure-eight.

The Bat

The second most important feature of baseball: The Bat. What would baseball be without it? Olden day bats were heavier and thicker than our modern day version, and there was a time when bats were flat on one side. Some early bats had knobs at the ends of their handles - others not, some with painted rings on them to identify a team's bat, and were two-and-a-half inches around, and could be any length really, whatever "suit the striker". The bat weighed about 48 ounces, as decided by the baseball convention. Club rules in 1865 decided that the bat would be made exclusively from hickory ash, whereas before that maple and pitch pine were acceptable. The baseball bat was reduced to lighter-weight in 1885 by the National Baseball League, and shortly thereafter a ruling adopted in 1887, and refined in 1893, decided that the bat would be round (no longer flat on one side), forty-two inches long, and two-and-a-half inches thick in the barrel, which was later changed to two-and-three-quarters inches thick in 1895, a dimension that remains today.

The Glove

The baseball glove wasn't always a part of the game. There was a time when a player would rather smash his fingers catching a fast ball with his bare hands, than to pad them and be called a "sissy". In the 1870s common sense won, and players began to create a glove that would cushion the blow to the hand. Every time a player reached out with bare hands to catch the ball, a player risked serious injury. Actually, the first glove was created not to catch the ball but to knock it to the ground.

The very first glove was simply composed of pieces of leather stitched together and worn over the hand. That lent itself to a basic glove with the fingers missing, to allow the player at least part of the thrill of catching the ball with bare hands while providing some protection.

At first the baseball glove was a leather work glove, sometimes with the fingers cut out. Some say the first to have worn the glove was Albert Spalding who, in 1877, walked onto the field wearing his fingerless, padded, black leather baseball glove. Others say that the first baseball player to have worn a glove was Doug Allison, catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1870 because of an injured hand. However Spalding claimed that he saw Charles C. Waite wearing a flesh-colored glove (so as not to be easily seen) in Boston in 1875. Spalding's fingerless glove was such a hit, he went into business selling them and the first catcher's mitt he ever sold was fingerless. The "Decker Safety Catcher's Mitt" of 1890, named after the famous ex-catcher Harry Decker, was simply a glove stitched to a leather pillow and worn on the palm of the hand. While historians cannot seem to agree on just who first wore the mitt, most will say that Decker, and Joe Gunson of the Kansas City Cowboys were among the first, and that Decker patented it.

As the baseball glove evolved, eventually the National League and the American Association had to rule on it. So it appears in 1895 they ruled the following: "The catcher and the first baseman are permitted to wear a glove or mitt of any size, shape or weight. All other players are restricted to the use of a glove or mitt weighing not over ten ounces, and measuring in circumference around the palm of the hand not over fourteen inches." And so, the glove was now synonymous with baseball.

The Mask

Baseball equipment includes the catcher's face mask. Now catchers could, well quite literally, save face. Caging the face to protect catchers from the dangers of baseball may have been the idea of Fred Thayer of the Harvard University Baseball Club, in 1875, but some say the catcher's mask might have been first worn by Jim Tyng, in 1876, when he modified a fencing mask.

Head Gear

From 1897 to 1915, baseball equipment began to include protective head gear. This was the contribution of Hall of Fame, New York Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan, after getting bashed, or rather "beaned" as they say, in the head with a baseball. It was similar to the leather football helmet made by A.J. Reach.

Shin Guards

When in 1907 the legendary catcher, Bresnahan, got down behind the plate, it was said he looked a little more like a goalie than a backstop with his heavily padded shin guards, which he modeled after cricketer's leg pads, except his were larger and bulkier. And it wasn't a hit with spectators. But the catcher didn't care. After all, he was far more concerned about protecting his extremities than what was acceptable to fans. All it takes is a few blows to the body to find that out. And this worked out fine, because within just a couple years shin guards were widely accepted. And that wasn't the only protective gear that Bresnahan dared to don. He also wore a glove, mask, and chest protector, despite their being dubbed "the tools of ignorance" by a star backstop in the 1920s.

The Uniform

Introduced more than 150 years ago, the first baseball uniform consisted of long blue woolen pants, white flannel shirt, and a straw hat, which many teams soon adopted after that, adding their own team's emblem on the shirt. "Pantaloons" (vintage full length trousers - which is where we get the word "pants") were worn, but players were tripping over them so they were shortened to knickers in the late 1860s. The Cincinnati Red Stockings was the first team to wear knickers, making their socks their team trademark. Laced-front shirts and bow ties were often worn too.

Many players were wearing spiked leather shoes in the 1860s, with the cleat being introduced in the 1870s.

About this time there was pressure to compete with a uniform code made by the new American Association, which ruled that each team had to wear multi-colored silk uniforms with different colors representing a different position on the field. So on Dec. 9, 1881, in Chicago, the National League made a uniform ruling that all players wear white pants, belts and ties, and the shirts and hats would symbolize the position they held. But it became a little confusing, so by the 1880s many teams simply sewed the name of their team on the front of their shirts, and later that decade pin-striped uniforms became popularized by a few of the national teams.

Umpire Equipment

Baseball umpire equipment includes chest protectors, masks, and shin guards. Umpires have been an important part of baseball for more than a century. While rules regulating umpires have changed, the equipment and uniforms haven't very much. Uniforms in some places are under a dress code, which declares that umps should wear dark dress pants or shorts (gray or black), a collared shirt in either, white, gray, black, or navy blue, dark shoes, and a dark-colored cap.

Baseball Field Equipment

Aside from bats, balls, uniforms, and other accessories, every team needs baseball field equipment, and training. Foul poles, line makers, field covers, batter's box templates, water removal systems, mats, rakes and tamps, it's all baseball field equipment you'll need to get if you're starting a team or club.

Baseball Training Equipment

Training equipment includes batting machines, nets, and items that improve running, hitting, pitching, and fielding. Know your team's needs, and what is appropriate for training and strengthening everything from the little to the big league.

Baseball equipment has come a long way over the years, as well as our attitudes about protecting players. Being knowledgeable about baseball equipment, and knowing your group's specific needs and budget, will give you the home team advantage.



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