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How helmets finally got into baseball

POSTED: March 7, 2010 1:00 a.m.

With opening day for Major League Baseball only weeks away, players wearing helmets at all levels is a common as wads of tobacco or bubble gum poking out their jaws.

It has been just more than three decades ago since helmets became mandatory. It took a lot of beaned batters, untold numbers of injuries and even some deaths before it happened.

A Gainesville man, Larry Pardue, was an up-close witness to one of the incidents that renewed interest in protective gear for batters. A catcher on a championship Gainesville High School team, Pardue was playing minor league baseball with the Dothan, Ala., Browns in 1951 when his teammate, outfielder Ottis Johnson, was struck in the head by a ball thrown by pitcher Jack Clifton for the Headland, Ala., team. Johnson died eight days later.

Pardue was on deck as the next batter when Johnson was hit. Johnson was rushed to a hospital, but the game continued.

The incident intensified the rivalry between the two southeast Alabama teams only 10 miles apart, and provided ammunition for those who had been advocating batters' helmets for years.

Bubba Ball, who later coached at Gainesville Junior College, was player manager at Headland. When Headland was next scheduled to play Dothan, the Dothan manager refused to play while Clifton was pitching.

In a later game between Dothan and Headland, Pardue was involved in a tussle at the plate when a Headland player tried to rough him up sliding into home. Pardue responded by hitting the player in the mouth with the baseball in his hand.

Following the fatal beaning of Johnson, experiments with protective gear resumed. Rather than helmets, plastic inserts were placed inside standard baseball caps, but they were not required. Some of those early attempts at helmets were a sight and weighed about 10 pounds, Pardue said.

Several Web sites give the history of baseball helmets, although there are some disagreements as to their beginnings. It is generally agreed, however, that Roger Bresnahan, a New York Giants catcher who had been hit in the head by a baseball in 1907, got the ball rolling, so to speak, by experimenting with crude helmets. Some looked like pieces of the old leather football helmet used in those days.

Serious attention to safety gear didn't start, however, until major leaguer Ray Chapman died after being hit by a ball in 1920. One report has it that the 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers first used helmets after two beanball incidents. But the Pittsburgh Pirates also were credited in 1952 to be the first team to officially require them for their players. Some individual players in other leagues had used some sort of protective gear when batting years earlier.

The major leagues finally mandated helmets for batters in 1971. There had been resistance from some players, saying helmets were for sissies. Fans didn't seem to appreciate them either, bouncing bottles or other items off them.

The first helmets came without ear flaps, but they were required by 1983. It was just eight seasons ago, however, when the last helmet without ear flaps was used in a game because of a grandfather clause.

When Rafael Furcal played for the Atlanta Braves, he wore a flapless helmet on April 8, 2004, in honor of Hank Aaron Day. Aaron had worn a flapless helmet during his final playing days. Furcal, however, was ejected from the game for the rule violation.

Another Brave was involved in a helmet incident. Joe Adcock was wearing one in 1954, long before they were required, when he was knocked out by a pitch. He later said the helmet saved his life.

Furman Bisher, longtime sports writer for the Atlanta newspapers, wrote at the time of the Dothan-Headland incident that it was the first death in organized baseball since James (Stormy) Davis, a Ballinger, Texas, outfielder, had died after being hit by a pitch in a game with Sweetwater in 1947.

The Alabama beanball incident apparently didn't rattle Clifton, the Headland pitcher, because he threw a no-hitter against Panama City five days later. But he didn't get a shutout because he hit one batter and walked seven others. He also wasn't shy at the plate as he had a double, three singles and drove in four runs.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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