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Harvard's Gift to Baseball

By Patrick Galvin, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard baseball may have dropped another one to Northeastern this evening, but the Huskies, and especially the team’s catcher John Puttress, are still indebted to the Crimson.

That’s right. Today marks the 135th anniversary of Harvard’s greatest contribution to baseball: the catcher’s mask.

Along with countless contributions to the landscape of American sports, the story of the first catcher’s mask is one of the University’s proudest athletic achievements. It’s also one of its most contested, despite what’s written in Harvard’s Hall of Athletic History.

Inventor Frederick Thayer—no relation to the namesake of freshman dorm—was the manager of the 1876 Crimson baseball team. Over the winter term, with no practices to keep him occupied, Thayer constructed a catcher’s mask for teammate Alexander Tyng, who previously had little more protection than rubber bands around his teeth.

Using the wiring of an old fencing mask and animal skins for padding, Thayer revolutionized baseball.

After practicing a few times with the mask in the early spring, Tyng introduced baseball to the catcher’s mask on April 12, 1876, the first day of the season. Tyng, who typically had to jump out of the way of foul balls and was hit in the face several times in his career, made only two errors in the entire game, a remarkably low number, even for professionals at the time.

Needless to say, the mask was “a complete success.” The new equipment added “greatly to the confidence of the catcher, who need not feel that he is every moment in danger of a life-long injury,” according to an 1877 Crimson article.

Thayer graduated in 1878 and eventually patented his invention, but his story remains highly contended. To this today, some argue that Tyng actually invented the mask, and many particulars of the account remain unverifiable.

In the end, what matters is that the Crimson did it first, and the mask accomplished its goal on that Opening Day, as Harvard won its game 135 years ago.

And although the Crimson couldn’t walk away with the same success almost a century and a half after Tyng’s debut of the mask, Harvard baseball can still hold on to its history.

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