Thoughts on Helmets

On my recent trip to Pennsylvania I noted that the Keystone State is somewhat similar to South Carolina in that the Helmet Law for motorcyclists has been overturned. While I didn’t see many bikers during my tours of downtown and the neighborhoods of my youth, none of the ones I did see was wearing a helmet. They were just tooling along letting the wind blow through their hair. In truth, there were one or two who simply had the wind blowing across their baldness.

I have numerous thoughts about helmets. The first football helmet I owned was a Christmas present when I was little more than a toddler. It was leather and manufactured by a company called “Hutch”. It’s anybody’s guess if the company is still in business. Perhaps they were bought out by a larger company.

When I was a child, everyone wore leather helmets… with nothing closely resembling a face mask. In doing research for this post I was surprised to learn that the leather helmet was used by high school, college, and professional football players up until 1950. To learn more about the early football helmets, visit Past Time Sports.

I’ve often wondered how other players reacted the first time someone showed up for a game wearing a helmet of any kind. According to the web site mentioned above, it was a future admiral who wore a helmet in the 1893 Army-Navy game. His doctor had told him that one more kick in the head could either kill him or make him instantly insane.

Since helmets were not mandatory until sometime in the 1930s, those men who wanted to avoid cauliflower ears and head injuries in general were probably called sissies and had to play that much harder to prove their manhood.

I imagine the first baseball catcher who donned a mask, shin guards, and chest protector was greeted in a similar fashion. Up until the time Juan Marachel hit Johnny Roseboro in the head with a baseball bat, catchers wore only their soft baseball caps turned backwards under the straps of their masks. Now, their masks are very elaborate helmets.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t that long ago that hockey players played without helmets and goaltenders did not wear masks. Some old-time goalies insisted that the mask blocked their view. Prior to the advent of the mask, a goalie for the Detroit Red Wings epitomized the sport. Terry Sawchuk played for more than a dozen years without a mask and received over 600 stitches to his face. He, unlike some of the other old-timers, had sense enough to change with the times and used a mask during the latter part of his career. However, it was only a mask; the helmets now being worn were later developments.

Baseball was another sport that was played for many years without protective helmets. In fact, it wasn’t until 1907 that catchers – accompanied by heckling from the grandstands – began trying to protect themselves. To quote a real old-timer, George Ellard of the Red Stockings… “We used no mattress on our hands, no cage upon our face; we stood right up and caught the ball, with courage and with grace.” This statement was made in 1869.

When baseball finally came around and made batting helmets mandatory in 1971, older players were still given the option of batting without the helmet. Of course, once a player reached base safely, the helmet was discarded. In 1983, the ear flap was made mandatory, but once again the older players were given the option of sticking to the helmet without ear flaps.

Fortunately, little league baseball has taken a more proactive appraoch and insists that all their batters were helmets with some sort of facial protection. Perhaps in twenty years, major league baseball will follow suit.

One more thought on helmet laws before I bring this post to a close.

A few years back there was a young man in Georgia who was in desparate need of a heart transplant. After long months with no donor, his family moved to South Carolina. They had been informed that states without helmet laws had many more organ donors. Within six months, the young man had his new heart.

Perhaps those helmet-less motorcyclists should have “Organ Donor” emblazoned across the back of their leather jackets.

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