Who was that mask man?
Ever wondered how baseball came into being? How about who invented the implements and accoutrements attached to the game? Bats, balls, gloves, cleats, caps, catcher’s masks and padding?
One such story has a McMinnville connection that rings true. And in the all-American tradition of capitalism and entrepreneurship, it includes an element of who did what when.
Interestingly, although baseball is as American as apple pie, and perhaps even more popular, its origins are uncertain. To this day, experts are not in universal agreement on the facts.
Just after the turn of the 20th century, a British historian declared “base ball” was descended from a 16th century English game called “rounders,” which also featured hitting and fielding using a bat and ball.
Vehement disagreement immediately arose in colonies, and a commission was created to delve into the issue. Its conclusion that Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839 was taken as gospel for many years thereafter, but was eventually proved erroneous.
A likely answer is an evolutionary process. Today’s game most likely emerged from a stick and ball game often referred to as “town ball,” which became widespread in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
One thing is certain.
In 1845, an amateur sportsmen’s club was founded as the New York Knickerbockers. Founding members Doc Adams and Alexander Cartwright drew up “The Knickerbocker Rules,” which mirror those of the game as we know it today.
The nine-player, nine-inning, three-outs game was, of course, modified and refined over time. Various materials, sizes and styles of bats and balls were standardized as years passed.
All of this has been documented in depth, particularly the dramatic change in baseballs, which catapulted the game out of its so-called “dead ball” era. Use of a livelier ball, producing more home runs, began in 1920.
Reams have been written about the evolution of the game’s cured white ash bats and hand-stitched balls. The latter are still being produced by Rawlings, but in Costa Rica these days.
How the catcher’s mask came into being is far less well known.
Several sources maintain that one William Anderson Howe of Carlton was the inventor of the catcher’s mask. In fact, that claim was made in a book on Yamhill Valley tourism from the 1940s.
Howe grew up on a farm just outside the north valley town. He enrolled at the Episcopal-affiliated St. Mark’s School, west of Boston in Southborough, in the mid-1870s.
He played catcher on the school’s varsity baseball team. And in those days, Harvard’s freshman team often played teams from local prep schools like St. Mark’s.
The June 1923 edition of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin claimed inventor rights for alumnus Fred W. Thayer, class of 1878. That brought howls of disagreement from people who recalled it differently.
In 1923, men who were in their teens in the mid-1870s were only in their late 60s. So there were plenty of local players from that era still around.
Maine’s Lewiston Evening Journal picked up on the controversy in a story from June 11, 1923, headlined, “START CONTROVERSY ON CATCHER’S MASK. Alumni Bulletin Claims Thayer, ‘78, Was Inventor. Others Say No.”
The Journal said 1892 Harvard alum Albert Emerson Benson had written the Bulletin to challenge the statement.
“Benson, in the spirit of fair play, stated that in the spring of 1874, W.A. Howe of St. Mark’s School wore a mask which he had fitted up by the local blacksmith out of a fencing mask, and this was a year before Thayer was credited with the invention.”
In the story, the Harvard grad went on to note that Thayer had played in that year’s St. Mark’s game as a member of Harvard’s freshman team. That would have given him a first-hand look at Howe’s mask.
Another Harvard alum, John T. Wheelwright of Boston, subsequently weighed in on Thayer’s side. He wrote:
“Mr. Howe’s use of a mask as described by Benson certainly does not give any proof of the invention of a mask so devised that it would be serviceable to protect a catcher from the impact of a baseball.
“It took Thayer some time to perfect the construction of the mask. He took out a patent and he brought suit against Spaulding of Chicago for infringement of it.
“The suit ended with the defendant acknowledging the validity of the patent and obtaining the right to manufacture under the patent, paying a royalty to Thayer.”
All of this, of course, does not diminish the reality that Howe did, indeed, come up with the original concept, and both created and tested a prototype. He thus ended the era when such safeguards were considered unmanly.
St. Mark’s current JV coach, Brady Loomer, contacted school historian Nick Noble about the invention at my request. Noble forwarded an account from the St. Mark’s archives that specifically addresses the matter.
“In 1874, 15-year-old Billy Howe was the starting catcher for the St. Mark’s First or Varsity Nine. But on at least two occasions, he had broken his nose while catching for St. Mark’s, and Dr. Coolidge decreed that he could no longer play the sport.
“Mr. Peck, Howe’s teammate and battery-mate, informed his catcher of this command, but then suggested that perhaps an enterprising and creative young athlete might just be able to come up with a solution.
“Howe wasted no time. He borrowed a fencing mask from a classmate, and after some experimentation, he hit on a design. He took the headgear down to the local Southborough forge, on the north corner of Main Street, just east of the railroad tracks.
“There he showed his proposed design to Francis Warren Walker, known as “F.W.”, the town blacksmith. Together, they cut open eyeholes in the front of the mask, and then reinforced the mesh with strips of copper wire.
“Howe took his mask back to St. Mark’s where both Dr. Coolidge and Mr. Peck were satisfied, and he practiced and played with the team while wearing the mask well into the spring of 1875.
“On April 30 of that year, St. Mark’s scheduled another game against the Harvard freshman team. Certainly, Thayer took the idea he saw in Southborough that day and adapted it for his teammate, ultimately patenting his own design.”
The account concludes by saying, “Some years later, Thayer himself acknowledged Howe’s influence and inspiration, while Howe would always say that he had never recognized the historical significance of his early mask. He had just wanted to play the game.”
Speaking of giving credit where credit is due, even though he didn’t want it, I must acknowledge Ruben Contreras Jr. for making me aware of this story in the first place.
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — unmasking the truth about how and when the first catcher protected his face from an errant fastball.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.