A batting helmet is the protective headgear worn by batters in a game of baseball or softball. It is meant to protect the batter from stray pitches thrown by the pitcher. A hit by pitch, caused by either a wild pitch or a purposeful attempt to injure the opposing team's batter, can cause serious injury.
In 1907, after creating many other pieces of useful equipment, Roger Bresnahan created the first batting helmet after getting beaned in the head one game. This was the start of helmets even though they were not in widespread use.
A batting helmet covers the back, top, and sides of the head, and at least one ear. The left ear is covered for right-handed batters and the right ear for left-handed batters, whichever ear faces the pitcher. Batting helmets that cover both ears are common as well, though almost exclusively worn by switch-hitters in the Major Leagues. In the minor leagues, such helmets are mandatory, except for major leaguers on rehabilitation assignments. Similar helmets are also mandatory in amateur-level baseball.
Despite the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman in 1920, batting helmets were not made mandatory in Major League Baseball until 1971, a result of several years of hospitalizations due to injury from hits to the head. However, they had been in use for several years prior to being made mandatory. In the 1950s and 1960s, players batting without helmets still used plastic inserts inside their baseball caps. After 1971, players who were grandfathered in could still choose whether or not they wanted to use a helmet. Some players, most notably Norm Cash and Bob Montgomery continued to bat without a helmet through the end of their playing careers. Montgomery was the last to do so in 1979.
Although helmets with earflaps were common in amateur sports, they were slow to gain popularity at the professional level. Ron Santo wore one of the first earflap helmets at the major league level, if not the first, upon returning to action after having his left cheekbone fracture by a pitched ball in 1966. Earflaps were adopted by the players relucantly. Some batters felt that seeing the earflap out of the corner of an eye was distracting.
In 1983, it was made mandatory for new players to use a helmet with at least one ear flap. Players who were grandfathered in could choose to wear a helmet without ear flaps. Players can choose to wear double ear flap helmets in the major leagues; however, this is not mandatory. Tim Raines was the last player to wear a helmet without ear flaps, during the 2002 season. His flap-less Florida Marlins helmet is currently at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gary Gaetti, who retired in the year 2000, and Ozzie Smith, who retired in 1996, both wore flap-less helmets until they retired from the game. As of the start of the 2008 season, Julio Franco was the only remaining active player eligible to wear a helmet without flaps, but he has chosen to wear a helmet with an ear flap throughout his career. Franco retired from baseball in May, 2008.
On April 8, 2004, celebrated as "Hank Aaron Day" in Atlanta because it is the 30th anniversary of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run, Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal came to the plate in the sixth inning with a helmet without an ear flap, as a tribute to Hank Aaron, who played his entire career in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and therefore did not wear a helmet with an ear flap during his playing career. Umpire Bill Welke made him get one with a flap.
The no-flap helmet is still utilized in baseball, as the following examples will attest. Occasionally, a player will wear a batting helmet without ear flaps while playing a defensive position in the field. This is usually done by a player who has a higher-than-normal risk of head injury. One notable example is former major-leaguer John Olerud, who started doing so after undergoing emergency surgery for a cerebral aneurysm while attending Washington State University. An earlier example was Richie Allen, who decided to wear a helmet in the field after at least one incident of being hit by objects thrown by fans.
Major League bat-boys/batgirls and ballboys/ballgirls are required to wear a helmet rather than a cap while performing their duties while on the field of play. They are allowed to use the no-flap helmet for this purpose, and most do. Some Major League catchers also continue to use the no-flap helmet, wearing it backwards along with their mask. Following the death of Tulsa Drillers first base coach Mike Coolbaugh after being hit by a batted ball, there has been debate as to whether base coaches should wear helmets. Following the incident, the Oakland Athletics Rene Lachemann decided to wear a helmet out to his third base coaching position. After the 2007 season, Major League Baseball made it mandatory for coaches to wear helmets with the 2008 season , although some coaches, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers' Larry Bowa, have disagreed with the decision .