The Face Behind The Mask


Thaiss 2015

“You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.” ~ Casey Stengel

In 1876, Fred Thayer, the team manager of Harvard’s baseball team, took a fencing mask, tinkered with it, and turned it into baseball’s first catcher’s mask. It didn’t take long for other catchers to catch on.

Thayer patent

Thayer’s original catcher’s mask patent.

Fans, according to The New York Times, hated the innovation, considering a protective mask a sign of weakness. They jeered at catchers who wore them.  (Batting helmets? Shin guards? Thumb protectors? Today’s game would drive our great-great-great grandparents nutty.)

The mask annoyed fans, but it changed the game. It allowed catchers to be much closer to the batter. It allowed pitchers to amp up their pitches without worrying about killing their catcher with an errant throw.

By 1878, Spalding had added it to their sporting goods’ catalog.


Goat hair and dog skin. $3.

Today’s best masks can run to more than $100. (Which, if you ask me, is a pretty small price to pay to keep your nose, cheekbone, and brain intact.) No more dog skin either. Progress.

It’s hard to know what’s going on behind those “tools of ignorance.” It’s hard to see a catcher’s face, especially way out in the bleachers.

Thaiss 2016

Matt Thaiss, gritty catcher for the University of Virginia, is tough as nails.

“He won’t give up,” UVA pitcher Alec Bettinger told The Daily Progress last week. “He could have his legs chopped off and he’d still go out there and catch. He’s just the toughest guy on the team.”

But, sometimes, when you look inside the mask …

Matt Thaiss March 2016

… he seems almost angelic.

Which just goes to show …

I don’t really know what it goes to show.  But, sometimes the face you find behind a mask isn’t always the face you expected to find.

In response to the Word Press Daily Post Photo Challenge: Face. See more challenge photos here.

Photos: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. 2015-2016 © The Baseball Bloggess


18 thoughts on “The Face Behind The Mask

  1. Some people wear masks all the time, though you can’t see them. Seems more straightforward to wear a visible mask. And catcher’s masks have certainly changed the game.

    • In the middle of a hot, sweltering summer season, it must get mighty hot inside all that catching gear — fortunately they don’t make the masks out of heavy wire, goat hair, and dog skin anymore.

    • You know, I almost didn’t write “tools of ignorance” in the post, because I’ve never liked that term. Then I read that it was first coined as an ironic term in the 1920s (by a catcher) — as in, isn’t it ironic that the smartest player on the diamond puts himself in the most dangerous, vulnerable position as catcher? So, I’ve decided the term is ok afterall!

  2. “Angelic?” Hell, we’ll put Buster Posey, our Giants’ catcher up against your guy, any time, in an “Angelic” contest! He’s the best in the League, if not in all of baseball, and he still looks like an 18 year old kid who just came up from the minors!

    • Buster is in a class unto himself — he’s classically “cute” in and out of the mask. Matt Thaiss is interesting, in that, even when he was a freshman, he had that look of a gritty old veteran. (The feature story I link to in the post has quotes from both UVA’s Coach O’Conner and Thaiss’ high school coach talking about how Thaiss will give them “that stare” when he’s locked in and not about to come out of the game.) So, I’ve always been a little surprised that many of the photos I’ve gotten of Thaiss catching over the years have been so angelic. (I’m sure he would not appreciate that description.)

      Thaiss will go, as a junior, in this year’s MLB draft. I think he has great potential, will have no problem transitioning to professional ball, and will be a solid addition to whatever team takes him. (I’m hoping it’s the Orioles …)

  3. “Sometimes the face you find behind the mask isn’t always the face you expected to find.” Lol! Here’s mine. But I’m no angel, Bloggess, just another hardworking umpire, and a fan.

    • I thought of you this weekend, Ms. Umpire, when the home plate umpire at the UVA game took a foul ball off of his wrist on Friday night. It took him out of the game, because there was a chance that he had broken some bones. It did remind me that umpires are nearly as vulnerable as the catchers … and you often see them getting dinged up over the course of the game. The ump was back at work on Saturday, and no cast on his hand, so, fortunately, nothing was broken!

  4. My dad was the catcher many moons ago. They played fast pitched softball back then. After working 16 hour days on the farm, they still had energy to play ball!

  5. Back when my son played youth baseball and had to put up with me as his coach, I found the hardest thing to do in a game was keep the catcher hydrated in 100 degree Oklahoma heat. Much more challenging than actually coaching the game. Fortunately, never lost one.
    Good post, B.

    • Thanks, v. Congratulations on never losing a young catcher; that’s no mean feat! I was wondering how catchers could maneuver — and not pass out — in those heavy old masks and sheepskin-covered chest protectors. Those old-timers were pretty tough. I think one of the best innovations with the new hockey-style masks today must be the ventilation holes.

  6. I really enjoyed this post, especially the pictures! My son is a catcher and they are definitely their own particular breed. I don’t know how he stands it back there, especially in the heat, but he loves to pile on all of that warrior gear. One year I watched him from directly behind the fence but now that they are older and the pitches are coming in a lot faster, I can’t handle it anymore. Plays at the plate? Just close my eyes and hope to hear “he’s OUT!” As far as the Big League catchers, of course we respect Wieters and Buster Posey…but I love my Yadier Molina!!!

    • The granddaughter of a friend of mine is a tiny little thing and she loved when her Little League softball coach put her at catcher, because, like many catchers, she wanted to be part of every play. She’s quite good. We all worried that the bigger players would flatten her when they ran in to home. I kept trying to convince her that shortstops run the infield, too. She didn’t buy that argument. But, once the coach discovered she has a great arm — she’s now pitching (and doesn’t miss catching at all).

      Yadi’s great … but I’m pretty much Team Buster. (And, I have such a soft spot for Caleb Joseph, I usually sigh with disappointment when Wiety is in the lineup. And, all I’m saying is Ubaldo was doing well with Caleb behind the dish this season … and then last night, Wieters catches him and he turns into old Ubaldo.)

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