Alex Torres and the history of headgear in baseball

Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports

Relief pitcher Alex Torres made history last season, when he was with the San Diego Padres, by becoming the first MLB pitcher to wear a padded helmet. Torres, who's now with the Mets, made history again last weekend by becoming the first pitcher to wear the latest version of MLB's protective headgear, which is actually a strip of padding that wraps around his regular cap.

Torres -- who has received a lot of ridicule and abuse for his headwear choices but, to his credit, doesn't seem too worried about what other folks think -- is hardly the first ballplayer to wear something unusual-looking on his head. Baseball history has a long tradition of headwear innovation and experimentation. With that in mind, here's a selective timeline of notable moments in MLB caps, helmets and other headgear:

1912: Pirates manager Fred Clarke comes up with a design for a baseball cap with flip-down sunglasses screwed into the brim. The concept fails to catch on.

1920: After Indians shortstop Ray Chapman is killed by a pitch to his head, an ad for a leather batting helmet appears in a trade journal called The American Hatter. The ad's text includes the following: "Magistrate F.X. McQuade, treasurer of the [New York] Giants, states the club officials are considering adopting such a helmet as is shown." Despite this claim, there's no evidence of this helmet ever being worn in a big league game (or anywhere else).

1937: Tigers star Mickey Cochrane's career is ended by a pitch that hits him in the head, fracturing his skull in three places. Athletics manager Connie Mack responds by having his players wear polo helmets during batting practice, although the helmets are not worn during a game.

1939: Athletics infielder Lamar Newsome wears a protective insert under his cap, described as being "similar to those used in Australia by steeplechase jockeys." Although Newsome's insert is made of tape-reinforced felt, subsequent versions of the insert are made of lightweight plastic and catch on with many players.

1939: The International League -- one of the top minor leagues -- begins providing optional protective headgear to its member teams.

1940: National League president Ford Frick, concerned about numerous beanings, devises a primitive helmet similar to the one introduced by the International League the previous year. White Sox second baseman Jackie Hayes, a frequent beaning victim, wears it in a game, and other players try it out, including Cardinals outfielder Terry Moore.

1941: The Dodgers begin using caps with built-in pockets for "protective plates" that can be inserted when a player is batting. The Senators and Cubs also experiment with armored caps, although the protective plates in their caps are permanently sewn in.

1953: Pirates general manager Branch Rickey, who has a stake in the American Baseball Cap Co., arranges for the company to produce a lightweight batting helmet and mandates that it be worn by Pirates players. Rickey's helmet, which looks like a hard-hat version of a baseball cap and is flocked to simulate a cap's cloth fabric, marks the beginning of the modern helmet era.

1956: A new rule goes into effect requiring National League batters to wear protective headgear -- either a Rickey-style helmet or a cap insert. The American League adopts a similar rule in 1958.

1956: White Sox outfielder Larry Doby wears a Little League helmet while batting. (Similar helmets are worn in 1960 by Senators outfielder Jim Lemon and Indians outfielder Jim Piersall.)

1958: The Reds experiment with "air-conditioned" mesh caps during spring training.

1959: Another spring training experiment for the Reds, this time with an early version of earflapped helmets.

1961: After Twins catcher Earl Battey suffers a broken jaw, equipment manager Ray Crump devises a makeshift earflap attachment for Battey's helmet.

(Similar attachments are later worn by Twins players Tony Oliva in 1964 and Jimmie Hall in the 1965 World Series.)

1964: Phillies outfielder Tony Gonzalez wears what appears to be history's first pre-molded earflap helmet, which looks pretty much the same as the ones that will be used for the next half-century.

1969: With Phillies fans mercilessly booing first baseman Dick Allen and sometimes throwing garbage and even batteries at him, Allen begins wearing a batting helmet while playing the field. (Helmets are later worn in the field by several other players, including George Scott and John Olerud.)

1970: Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson begins wearing an earflapped helmet but finds the point of intersection between the flap and the brim to be distracting to his field of vision. So he takes a hacksaw to his brim and cuts it down to a mere nub, which he wears for the rest of his career.

1971: Batting helmets are made mandatory for all new MLB players, but veterans are permitted to keep wearing the plastic insert beneath their caps.

1978: Pirates outfielder Dave Parker fractures his cheek in a collision with Mets catcher John Stearns and returns to action wearing a hockey goalie mask, followed by a series of football face masks. (For more on Parker's masks, look here. For more on other players who've worn mask attachments on their batting helmets, look here.)

1979: Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery, the last player to wear a plastic cap insert instead of a batting helmet, retires. His cap and insert are sent to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

1983: Earflapped batting helmets become mandatory for new players, but veterans are allowed to keep going flapless if they choose.

1997: Blue Jays catcher Charlie O'Brien becomes the first MLB catcher to wear the hockey-style mask.

2000: Red Sox third baseman Gary Gaetti, the last player to wear a non-earflapped batting helmet, retires. The flap-free era ends.

2001: The flap-free era is revived as Tim Raines comes out of retirement and plays for the Marlins with a flapless helmet. He retires for good at the end of the 2002 season, finally bringing the flap-free era to a close.

2003: Mets catcher Jason Phillips becomes the first MLB backstop to wear his catcher's helmet with the brim facing forward instead of backward. The style slowly catches on with several other catchers, including Jeremy Brown, Kevin Cash, Wellington Castillo, Robert Fick, Jose Lobaton, Adam Melhuse, Wilson Ramos, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

2004: Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal tries to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run by coming up to bat with a flap-less helmet. (Aaron never wore an earflap during his career.) Home plate ump Bill Welke makes him go back to the dugout for a flapped model.

2008: A new rule requires first- and third-base coaches to wear helmets. Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa initially vows not to follow the rule but eventually relents.

2009: Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster becomes the first MLB player to wear Rawlings' new S100 helmet, which offers better protection than the company's standard helmets (further info here). About half a dozen other players follow Dempster's lead and test-drive the S100, with most deciding that the helmet is too big, too heavy, or just too goofy-looking. Rawlings later retools the helmet and pares it down to a more manageable size.

2013: Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre, the last player to employ the once-common practice of wearing his cap under his batting helmet, retires. (This style began falling out of favor when earflapped helmets were introduced, because the flap made it more uncomfortable to wear the cap under the helmet.)


It's worth noting that many of these developments were ridiculed at the time but nonetheless became part of the baseball firmament -- something to think about the next time you're smirking at Alex Torres and his protective cap.

Special thanks to Larry Granillo and Todd Radom for their research assistance.

Paul Lukas doesn't know who was the first player to wear a double-earflap helmet or else he would have included that on the timeline as well. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.