How Harvard Invented the Tools of Ignorance

El Sid

Baseball, unlike most modern day sports, has remained fundamentally unchanged in design and spirit since its genesis in the middle of the 19th century. The invention of the game is attributed in folklore to Abner Doubleday. Besides founding the national sport, Gen. Doubleday--after graduating from West Point--was present at Fort Sumter, where as an artillery captain he sighted the first cannon fired by the Union in the Civil War.

One thing, though, that has changed dramatically since those early days is the tools of the trade. One of the most importan breakthroughs in the game was the invention of the catcher's mask by none other than the captain of the 1877 Harvard team, F.W. Thayer. The catcher's mask has remained Harvard's legacy to the great American pastime for 102 years.

Before the 1877 season at Cambridge catchers tended to be gap-toothed individuals with rather leathery hands, as they caught the ball sans mitt. Understandably, the catcher stood well behind the plate near the backstop.

The pitchers in those days fired the ball underhand, standing only 45 feet from the plate. A "cross-fire" was created by the pitcher moving along a six-foot painted strip from which he made his delivery. In short, before Thayer's brainstorm the lot of the backstop was "nasty, brutish, and short."

Old Catchers Never Die


One of the first Harvard catchers was Horatio Stevens White, the team captain from 1871-73. White became a professor of German at Harvard and eventually athletic director. In a retrospective that appeared in the Crimson in 1927, he noted that in the absence of a mask he "was accustomed to bite upon a large rubber eraser, to prevent dental demolition, with a surreptitious supplementary duplicate to lend to envious and suppliant professional backstops. But this was the principle concession made for defensive armor."

The catcher's endurance was also put to the test in the early stages of the game. A catcher was credited with an error for any passed ball or dropped third strike, even if the runner was tagged out. Games also tended to be high-scoring. In 1870 the Harvard nine was the top amateur team in the country and played a barnstorming tour against professional clubs. In a game against a team from Lockport, N.Y., Harvard scored 36 runs in the third inning. The game was adjourned for a visit to Niagara Falls with the score at 62-4.

Harvard's baseball fortunes slipped until the arrival of Thayer, who was elected captain for the 1876 season while still a sophomore. In 1877, Thayer hit upon the idea of the mask for the team's catcher, James A. Tyng.

Thayer took the mask used in fencing for his model and then went to a Cambridge tinsmith, who constructed the first mask in the history of the game. The mask was given a test run in the gym with satisfactory results and a new epoch began when Tyng first wore it in a game played at Lynn against a team billed as the "Live Oaks."

The Crimson ran an editorial that appeared exactly 102 years ago last Friday hailing Thayer's invention: "The new mask was proved a complete success, since it entirely protects the face and head and adds greatly to the confidence of the catcher, who need not feel that he is every moment in danger of life-long injury. To the ingenious inventor of this mask we are largely indebted for the excellent playing of our new catcher, who promises to excel the fine playing of those who have previously held this position."

After donning the tools of ignorance for the first time. Tyng did indeed go on to outstrip all his predecessors behind the plate. The 1877 season was Tyng's first as a catcher and in the team picture for that year he is holding the mask in the first photograph ever taken of the new accoutrement.

Tyng was a rather frail, sleepy-eyed fellow, who in later pictures is shown sporting Silas Marner sideburns. He was already a senior in 1877, having played his three previous years as a third baseman and outfielder. Tyng, however, made his reputation as a catcher and continued to catch for two more years while enrolled in the Law School. Tyng therefore played for the Crimson nine, or Magenta as it was known in those days, for six years, a record only equaled by W.H. Coolidge '81.

Tyng teamed up with ace pitcher H.C. Ernst to form one of the greatest batteries in Crimson baseball history. Ernst, who in 1876 had twirled the first no-hitter ever by a Harvard pitcher, was adept at throwing the curve. The pitch had been developed by W. Arthur Cummings of the Stars of Brooklyn team.

Ernst graduated in 1876 before Tyng began to catch, but he too continued to play for the varsity while attending the Medical School. The tandem successfully teamed up throughout 1877 and 1878, but by 1879 both had lost touch with baseball and had stopped playing.

The batsmen's record stood at 3-10 midway through the 1879 season when, the night before a game against Yale, the captain and two other members of the team came over to Ernst's room and threatened to forfeit the game if he did not pitch. Naturally, Ernst consented and then Tyng too was persuaded to play. With the invincible battery of Ernst pitching and Tyng behind the plate, Harvard blanked the Elis 2-0 in that game played exactly 100 years ago.

Sporting Trailblazer

Tyng went on to become a pioneer in another fledgling sport. He was one of the leading amateur golfers in the 1890s and played in the second United States Amateur Championship at Shinnecock Hills, N.Y., in 1896. Tyng had taken up the newly imported sport in 1894 and in 1912 and 1915 he won the U.S. Seniors' championship.

As it turns out, Tyng was involved in a precedent-setting event in golf as well as in baseball. In the 1898 U.S. Amateur, Tyng, who was known for his volatile temperament, was purposely kept waiting for over an hour on the first tee by his opponent, a chap named Foxhall Keene. Tyng predictably lost the match and ever since, players who arrive late for their matches are disqualified.