Wednesday, April 29, 2009

REA: The First Professional Mask?

This is a very important piece of vintage game-used equipment. REA is auctioning off a catchers mask once owned and worn by Deacon White- the first man to wear a mask in professional Baseball. I'll let the auction description tell the story.
This historically important catcher's mask was worn by Deacon White during the 1880s and originates directly from White's great-grandson, Roger Watkins, who has provided a one-page signed letter attesting to its provenance. Any and all nineteenth century game-used equipment is exceedingly rare, let alone examples that can be attributed to a specific player. What makes this particular piece even more significant is the fact that not only was White the first professional catcher to use a mask, but he also improved on its design. Ideally, the mask is accompanied by a circa 1920s newspaper clipping in which White recalls, first hand, how he was introduced to the new invention. In part:

One day during the season of 1875 at Boston, the papers announced that "The man with the iron mask would play a game of baseball for Harvard." Harry Wright asked me to go out with him and see the demonstration. A fellow named Fred Thayer, third baseman for Harvard, had made a big cage, much like a bird's cage, out of heavy iron wire. This the Harvard catcher, Jim Tyng, wore during the game. "What do you think of it?" Harry asked me. Well I told him such a mask hindered a catcher's work but I believe one could be made which would prove satisfactory. "Make one the way you think it should be made" he ordered. So I went to an iron worker in Boston and had him make me a mask out of steel wire. It fit over my face only, with padding around it, and was held on with elastic bands. This I used in catching Spalding for two seasons after that, and it came in handy when I went up behind the plate to catch my brother in 1878.

While we cannot state with certainty that the offered "spider-style" mask is the one referenced by White in the article, it may very well be and it is without question certainly one of the earliest examples in existence. Consisting of a network of strong metal wires, the mask features five separate pieces of leather padding, each affixed to the framework by its original metal fasteners. Three pieces of padding display additional reinforcement by means of vintage metal wire. No form of head strap is present. The mask displays heavy wear throughout, including numerous cracks and tears to each of the leather pads, but with no breaks to the framework. According to Watkins, this mask was found together with many other baseball items belonging to his grandfather: My great grandfather, James "Deacon" White, was a professional baseball player in the 19th century, playing for several teams in the 1860s-80s including the Cleveland Forest Citys, Boston Red Stockings, and Detroit Wolverines. Before she died, my grandmother, Grace White, brought a box full of Deacon's things to our house. We put the box in a closet where it remained unopened for many years. This spider style catcher's mask originates directly from Deacon White's personal collection.


  1. I recently purchased a mask exactly like this one. It's missing more leather. Was wanting to know if any reproduction pieces exist and how to tell the difference.

    1. I doubt reproductions exist - there wouldn't be much value in doing it... some mask may be enhanced, or fixed to look beeter... the mask in this post reach it's high value due to its provenance... it was once owned by Deacon White


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