The Evolution of Baseball’s Goalie Mask

Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Dave Parker in 1978.

Note: Kyle Scully is a new writer for Puck Junk. Please give him a shout out in the comments below. 

Hockey’s greatest cultural contribution may not be the Stanley Cup or Wayne Gretzky, but the fiberglass goalie mask made infamous by Jason Voorhees’ in the Friday the 13th movies. From Jason, to The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Casey Jones, to the brazen thieves in Heat, Hollywood has an endless fascination with hockey’s famous headgear, but goalie masks don’t often appear elsewhere. However, 40 years ago, a goalie mask made a cameo appearance in a Major League Baseball game. Two decades later, it became a game-changer. 

On June 30, 1978, Pittsburgh Pirates’ right fielder Dave Parker collided into Mets’ catcher John Stearns at home plate. The play left Parker with a fractured jaw and cheekbone, sidelining him from any action.

Parker didn’t return to the lineup for a little over two weeks, but coming back would require a little help from a goalie mask. It wasn’t Parker’s first concept. Initially, he a toyed with clear Plexiglas model like the kind Rip Hamilton wore when he played in the NBA.

“He wanted to play again right away, so I knew I had to come up with something fast,” said Tony Bartirome, the Pirates’ trainer at the time told ESPN in 2008. “If he’d had his way, he would have missed only four games.”

The hockey mask made its one and only appearance during Parker’s return to the baseball diamond on July 16, 1978; an 11th inning pinch hit opportunity. In order to wear his batting helmet, Parker had the mask cut off at the top. He was intentionally walked and kept the mask on while he rounded the bases. Parker’s plate vision was impaired wearing the mask, and the experiment ended just as quickly as it started.

Parker recalled the experience fondly, per ESPN, in 2008: “We were real creative with it. We painted one side yellow, one side black. I’d put it on and then put my helmet on over it. The first time I wore it in batting practice, I was hitting balls in the second tier, third tier, so I used it in that first game. But I found it kind of prevented me from seeing some of the pitches, because of the way it was constructed, so we had to try something else.”

The next stage in masks would lead Parker to try various football helmets and facemasks, much in the same way Bobby Hull wore a football helmet facemask to protect his broken jaw during the 1968-1969 NHL season.

The introduction of the Hockey Style Mask (HSM) in 1996, as an alternative to the catcher’s traditional two-piece mask, really brought hockey and baseball together. While goalies wore baseball catcher masks sporadically during hockey’s early days, it wasn’t until the late-1990s when catchers would use goalie masks. Toronto Blue Jays catcher Charlie O’Brien innovated the new mask in 1996 because he was frustrated by the pain from getting hit in the face. “There are times when you get hit with a 90-mph-plus ball and you lose sight of what you’re doing — even where you are — for a while,” O’Brien told Popular Mechanics in 2004.

On a typical night, while watching a hockey game, a light bulb went off in O’Brien’s head. A goalie mask might be the perfect replacement for the old, outdated traditional two-piece headgear. A goalie could just brush off getting hit with a puck, which is much harder than a baseball. For instance, a ball will compress under impact, whereas a puck does not.

Charlie O’Brien’s 1997 Upper Deck card mentions his “revolutionary” masks debut on September 13, 1996.

O’Brien developed the mask with Van Velden Mask Inc., of Hamilton, Ontario. Their brainstorming efforts gave birth to the new design, dubbed the All-Star MVP. Although the new design was ready to go in spring of 1996, MLB did not approve it until September that year. O’Brien debuted his new mask at the Toronto Skydome on Friday, September 13, 1996. While not the same style of fiberglass mask that Parker wore nearly two decades ago, it was still uncanny timing for a goalie mask to appear in a baseball game on Friday the 13th. 

The new mask took only its shell construction — a seven-layer sandwich of fiberglass, Kevlar and a cornucopia of other materials — from the hockey mask. Besides the layers of protection, the new mask also increases the catcher’s vision so that taking the helmet off to catch a pop-up became unnecessary. According to O’Brien, “You usually end up stepping on it anyway.” The Hockey Style Mask uses angles to deflect incoming balls as opposed to the traditional masks whose flat surface only invited devastating hits from an errant fastball.

Unlike Parker’s one-time use of the goalie mask in 1978, O’Brien’s Hockey Style Mask was a game-changing idea that took hold, and is used by many catchers in baseball today. Just as the catcher’s mask became the inspiration for the goalie mask, the goalie mask returned the favor and became the inspiration for the catcher’s mask, forever leaving hockey’s mark on baseball. ■

Kyle Scully is a lifelong Sharks fan whose secret dream is to attend the Sloan Analytics Conference. Loves Zebra from Popcornopolis but only eats it at hockey games.

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Author: Kyle Scully

Kyle Scully is a lifelong Sharks fan whose secret dream is to attend the Sloan Analytics Conference. Loves Zebra from Popcornopolis but only eats it at hockey games.

2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Baseball’s Goalie Mask”

  1. It’s a great concept for catchers. The MLB should make catchers wear it. It’s for their benefit.
    I see more umpires wear it now they seem cool with it. The only problem is that it’s too hot under that mask. You also have creative art work for the catchers just like the goalies. The umpires have traditional black.

    By the way Kyle good luck in your new gig. Score this article as a great interesting concept

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