Face mask

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The Face mask or catcher's mask is a piece of equipment worn by catchers and umpires to protect their face from errant throws and foul balls. It consists of wires that prevent balls from hitting the face but allow the catcher full vision, and a circle of padding that absorbs shocks. The mask is worn over a helmet that protects the top of the head. Masks worn by umpires are similar in design.

While the mask affords good protection, it restricts vision and movement, which is why catchers (and umpires) are taught to discard it as soon as the ball is hit. Umpires will keep it in their hand, but catchers, who need their two hands, will throw it away to a spot where it will not interfere with the play. There have been cases of catchers failing to throw their mask sufficiently far and tripping on them, most famously Hank Gowdy who dropped a crucial foul pop-up, as a result in the 1924 World Series.

The mask is the first piece of plate equipment to have been developed: the first models date back to the 1870s, developed from a fencing mask, and replacing mouth protectors, adopted from bare-knuckles boxing, that were used prior to this. Fred Thayer developed the first mask for Jim Tyng, catcher of the Harvard University team, around 1877. Derided at first, the contraption caught on quickly and was in general use by the 1880s. It was then improved by adding padding, replacing the mesh used to cover the face by a few carbon-fiber tubes that allow for better vision.

The mask was largely supplanted by the catcher's helmet, inspired by those worn by hockey goaltenders, introduced by Charlie O'Brien in the 1990s, but has since made a comeback. The reason was that the helmet was linked to an increase in concussions. One of the mask's advantages is that it is loose enough that it can be knocked off by a foul ball, which dissipates the force of the blow, whereby the helmet softens the blow but lets the catcher's head absorb the full force of the impact.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Stephen Eschenbach: "Home-plate Security", Harvard Magazine, July-August 2004. [1]
  • John Hanlon: "Baseball's First Masked Man", Sports Illustrated, July 19, 1971. [2]
  • Chuck Rosciam: "The Evolution of Catcher's Equipment", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 39, Number 1 (Summer 2010), pp. 104-112.