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Bare-Knuckle Baseball

Sports in the 1800s were brutal! We've all heard of bare-knuckle boxing, a sport that was long banned in "civilized" countries. Brutal, right? We wouldn't think of such barbarism in the name of athletic competition or entertainment today, would we? (As of 2018, it's back and the U.S.)

Generally speaking, though, we pad and armor our athletes to the hilt and add new regulations to the rulebooks year by year in the more-or-less sincere hope that our sports heroes will still be able to walk--and think cogently--once they've retired from the field of competition.

You know, baseball used to be a lot more rugged than it is today. All sports were, I suppose, if for no other reason than that much of the protective equipment we take for granted nowadays hadn't yet been invented.

Can you imagine playing catcher for a professional baseball team in the days before heavily padded mitts were invented? Before shin guards, chest protectors, and facemasks were invented? The game had been around a good thirty years before anybody used these now-universal pieces of equipment, and once the game began to be played professionally, ballplayers who dared to venture out onto the diamond wearing such accoutrements were deemed "sissies...milksops...poltroons." I don't know about you, but I'd sooner suffer a broken knuckle--or even two broken knuckles--than allow myself to be reckoned a milksop, much less a poltroon.

To mitigate the odds of injury, catchers in the days of bare-knuckle baseball stationed themselves a good nine feet or so behind the plate to receive pitches that got past the batter. But catching still hurt. So, over time, 19th century catchers began to fashion heavy paper, cloth, or cane shin guards for themselves. Initially, though, they were very careful to wear them beneath their socks ("stockings") and breeches, so fans and teammates couldn't see them.

And catchers weren't the only baseballers to suffer during the days of barehanded play. Imagine fielding a sharply hit ball in the hot corner with no glove. Or receiving the ball at first base on the tail end of a slam-bam double play. Snide comments weren't reserved for catchers who dared to wear shin guards. For decades, even gloves and mitts were ridiculed, no matter what position a man played. Never mind the fact that, without gloves, players' fingers ended up looking like fleshy corkscrews.

Albert Spalding is sometimes given credit for inventing the baseball glove, but I believe Arthur "Foxy" Irwin of the 1885 National League Providence Grays came up with the first full-fingered leather baseball glove. Having injured two fingers while fielding a ball, Irwin was on the bench and missing play (which, back then, often meant losing pay). Empty pockets being the mother of invention, Irwin fashioned himself a padded, full-fingered mitt and said, "Bah," to epithet-tossing cranks and ballplayers who surrounded him. He wouldn't be missing any more playing time, owing to mere mangled fingers!

Just like that, a half-century of barehanded or half-finger-gloved play was over. Well...not quite. It took a year or two for other players to decide words didn't hurt as much as broken fingers...or empty pockets. (Aside from the pain, it wasn't so easy for ballplayers to impress the ladies when their fingers looked like curly fries, and they couldn't afford to buy them dinner, to boot.)

A step in the right direction, Spalding and Foxy Irwin's baseball gloves didn't offer just a whole lot of protection. Essentially, they were merely modified driving gloves (wagons and carriages, not automobiles, of course, which were not yet invented). It would be decades before anything like the mitts we know of today came into existence.

So, baseball remained about as rough a sport as any, back in the 1800s. No sliding mitts, no batting helmets, no batters' ankle guards, no elbow protectors for those nasty 103 mph fastballs that somehow simply wouldn't go precisely where the pitcher meant for them to go.

What? You think nobody threw 100 mph back in the 1800s? Naturally, there were no radar guns to measure pitch velocities, but anecdotal evidence tells there were hurlers who threw hard enough to back the best of batters off the plate, and right quick. Kid Nichols, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Mickey Welch, Pud Gavin, Hoss Radbourn--household names today, one and all...or maybe not.

As I wrap up, lest you think I consider today's ballplayers pantywaists in comparison to those of a century or more ago, let me say, I believe today's protective gear makes good sense. It obviously doesn't impede players' range of motion, vision, or anything else that makes any difference, so their performance isn't hindered by it. And by diminishing the fear of injury, players can be more aggressive in chasing pitches, sliding, and fielding.

Baseball is still no namby-pamby game. Taking a pitch in the ribs still hurts. A wooden bat that snaps off when a batter swings and flies onto the infield is still a sharp projectile. A slide on the basepath or in the field can still result in torn ligaments. I simply can't imagine playing today's game with the equipment (or lack thereof) of the 1800s.

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