Safe at home plate

Safe at home plate

The high and inside fastball, thrown from less than 60 feet away, came quickly, giving the batter less than a second to get out of harm's way.

Jeff Kent did his best to avoid the ball, and prevent that awful sound of horsehide hitting plastic.

He ducked and closed his eyes an instant before contact. The ball slammed against his head, which was protected by, perhaps, the greatest safety device ever developed for the sport -- the batting helmet.

After the cobwebs cleared, the Dodgers second baseman rose to his feet, and the game continued.

Thank you, Branch Rickey.

Rickey, a Hall of Fame front office executive and the individual most responsible for breaking the Major League color barrier, founded the ABC (American Baseball Cap) Helmet Company in 1952. The company made and distributed hard-plastic batting helmets to players of all ages, shapes and sizes.

While it's impossible to calculate the number of lives saved by the batting helmet, there isn't anyone, from Little League on up, who doesn't owe a debt of gratitude to a protective device that weighs less than a pound.

"Nowadays, with these kids throwing about 95 (mph), and not caring where they throw it, it would be pretty scary not to wear a helmet," Kent said, who was wearing the newest version of the helmet -- the "Coolflo" model available to a handful of teams this year and available to all in 2007.

Batting helmets have been mandatory for MLB players since 1956 and anyone reaching the big-leagues after 1983 must wear a helmet with an ear flap. Minor League players must wear flaps that cover both ears.

Major League Baseball was played for more than half a century without any protection for the noggin. Making matters worse, pitchers were more likely to throw high-and-inside "message" pitches much more often before batting helmets were used than they do now.

Fortunately, there has been just one death caused by a so-called "beanball."

On August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds in New York, Indians shortstop Ray Chapman became MLB's first -- and only -- on-field fatality when he was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman died a few days later.

Just as memorable, but thankfully not as tragic, Don Zimmer was leading the American Association with 23 HR and 63 RBIs when, on July 7, 1953 in Columbus, Ohio, he was hit in the head by a Jim Kirk pitch. Zimmer was unconscious for almost two weeks, lost his speech, and also lost 44 pounds.

"Whenever I see someone get hit in head and I hear that terrible sound, I just turn away," Zimmer said. "I can recall a couple of real bad incidents. One time, Nolan Ryan hit Doug Griffin, our (Red Sox) little second baseman, in the back of the head.

"If (Griffin) hadn't been wearing a helmet, he wouldn't be alive today. There are maybe seven or eight more people just like that. No question, batting helmets have saved a lot of injuries, and maybe some lives."

After his first beaning, Zimmer had metal screws inserted in his head and, less than a year later, helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series. But in '56, a pitch thrown by Reds' right-hander Hal Jeffcoat fractured Zimmer's cheekbone and he missed the remainder of the season.

Several teams, including the Dodgers, began insisting that all of their players wear batting helmets.

"Until then, a lot of guys would wear a piece of plastic that fit inside your regular baseball cap," said Irv Noren, a 14-year MLB veteran who was playing for the Yankees in '56. "(The helmet) felt funny at first, but I was glad to have it. You felt better knowing that if you did get hit in the head there was some protection.

"Batting behind Yogi (Berra) and Mickey (Mantle), I got hit a lot, but I never got hit in the head."

The precise date that protective headgear was worn for the first time remains unclear.

According to a book titled "The Way Baseball Works" by Dan Gutman, Willie Wells might have been the first player to use the "modern" batting helmet in 1942. Apparently, he adapted something from hard hats used by construction workers. Also, Gutman's book says that Phil Rizzuto was the first American League player to wear a helmet.

But another source suggests that the first time players wore protective headgear came a year earlier, during a Spring Training game on March 7, 1941. Teammates Pee Wee Reese and Joe Medwick of the Dodgers reportedly wore a plastic insert designed by Johns Hopkins brain surgeon Walter Dandy.

Regardless who was first, it wasn't until 1952 before an entire team -- the Pirates -- wore the style of batting helmets that are still being used today. The NL team wore helmets while batting, running the bases and playing defense.

It probably was not a coincidence that Rickey was the Pirates' general manager at the time.

Then, as now, the helmets are molded of a hard plastic with the interior designed to provide an individualized, secure fit, with a leather-wrapped head liner and proportioned ear and back pads.

Batting helmets became mandatory for all MLB players in 1971, although the players in the big leagues prior to that season were allowed to bat with plastic inserts placed inside their regular baseball cap.

Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery, who reached the Major Leagues in 1970 and retired in '79, has the distinction of being the last player to wear the plastic insert.

White Sox coach Tim Raines also has a spot in batting helmet trivia -- the last player to wear a helmet without at least one ear flap, which became mandatory in 1983.

"I guess you could call it the new generation of helmet. I would imagine that before a couple of years are out, everyone will be wearing them. It sure beats not wearing one, like the old-timers."
-- Jeff Kent

Raines ended his 23-year MLB career in 2002 with the Marlins and the helmet he wore during his final at-bat that season currently is on display at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Raines played 2,502 games for the Expos, White Sox, Yankees, Athletics, Orioles and Marlins from 1979-2002 and never was an ear flap man.

On the other hand, 47-year-old Julio Franco, the only active player who was in the Major Leagues when the ear flap era began, could use a flap-less helmet if he wanted. However, the Mets infielder has worn a one-flap helmet his entire career.

One of Franco's many former teammates, current Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, tried to take an at-bat without wearing a helmet with a flap -- and caused a minor flap. It happened on April 8, 2004 on "Hank Aaron Day" in Atlanta.

As a personal tribute to Hammerin' Hank, who never wore a helmet with an ear flap, Furcal walked to home plate in the sixth inning wearing a flap-less batting helmet. Umpire Bill Welke forced Furcal to return to the dugout and get one with an ear flap.

Raines, meanwhile, used the "grandfather clause" to wear a flapless helmet throughout his career, and he had a simple reason why.

"Because I'm a switch-hitter and I didn't want to have to carry two helmets," Raines said. "At the time that I came in, you didn't have to have the flap. Going through the Minors, I had a helmet that had two flaps. I just felt that if I could, I would just have one helmet for either side.

"It wasn't like the olden-days helmet where it was like a catcher's helmet, just rounded. I took a regular helmet and I would have the back and just cut off both ears. It just wouldn't have the flaps. I didn't really want to have the ear flaps in my way when I was hitting. After a while, you can almost see it."

Except for the addition of ear flaps, the ABC batting helmets have undergone little change since debuting in 1952.

But you might have noticed a new, sleeker version, this season.

The Rawlings Sports Goods Company, which purchased ABC in 2003, unveiled its "Coolflo" batting helmet this spring and there currently are about one-third of the MLB teams using them -- including the Cubs, Dodgers, Angels, Mets, Devil Rays, Diamondbacks, Braves, Padres and Orioles.

The "Coolflo" style will be available to all MLB teams next season.

"We saw a need to update the look of the helmet," said Dan Cullinane of Rawlings. "Therefore, we created this design ... to update the look."

The new helmet utilizes new, air venting technology with 15 individual vents. The vents allow air to flow through the helmet for a more comfortable feel without sacrificing protection.

It doesn't, however, make a slow runner faster.

"I don't know how much (the new helmet) helped me 'cause my head hurt pretty good after I got hit," Kent said. "It's hard for me to say if it's better than the others, because I don't know. I still had a headache for a couple of days, but this helmet looks nicer."

The plastic is a little thicker than the older helmets, but also a little lighter.

"I guess you could call it the new generation of helmet," Kent added. "I would imagine that before a couple of years are out, everyone will be wearing them. It sure beats not wearing one, like the old-timers."

He can say that again.

Jim Street is a reporter for Reporter Scott Merkin contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.