Friday, April 8, 2022

The Innovation of America’s Pastime – Reviewing the Patents of Baseball

Author: Tucker Griffith

The annual rite of spring known as Opening Day is upon us. Today's game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees officially started the 146th season of professional baseball. While there have been many rule changes and innovations to the game of baseball over the last century and a half, including recent changes such as the universal designated hitter introduced for the first time this season, the use of a wireless communication device between catcher and pitcher, and the introduction of a pitch clock for next season, the basic rules of the game have remained relatively unchanged since the 1800s. At its heart, the game of baseball is about hitting a ball with a bat and catching that ball with a glove. It is easy to assume that the design of these basic components of the game have likewise been unchanged since the purported inception of baseball in 1839. However, enterprising individuals, often motivated by a desire to improve performance or safety, developed groundbreaking innovations in equipment that became the standard for the game of baseball over time, and are presently as ubiquitous as peanuts, crackerjacks, and the 7th inning stretch. This post explores some of the patented inventions that have advanced the game of baseball, and some that never quite caught on.

The key component of baseball is unquestionably the ball itself. The design of a ball, per se, dates back millennia – the earliest evidence of a ball is for a toy made of linen rags and string discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating to about 2500 BCE. The baseball has a well-known design, generally constructed from two pieces of leather joined by stitching. U.S. Patent No. 1,502,784 was issued on July 29, 1924 to B. Kennedy for his innovative “Baseball Cover.” Kennedy’s invention eliminated the rough and raised edges where the leather pieces were stitched together. This allowed for thicker pieces of leather to be used, which added strength to the cover and led to a longer life of the ball. Over the years, additional patents have been issued to various core materials, layers, or other stitching designs.

The early designs of the baseball glove generally resembled a regular glove, as illustrated in George Rawlings’ U.S. Patent No. 325,968, issued on September 8, 1885. Eventually, the modern baseball mitt came into form, as inventors added padding, webbing, and a preformed pocket all designed to facilitate catching a baseball, as illustrated in U.S. Patent Nos. 528,343 (pillow-style catcher’s mitt); 1,496,824 (padded baseball mitt); and 2,750,594 (mitt with pre-formed pocket).

In the early days of baseball, batters usually made their own bats, much like Roy Hobbs’ Wonderboy in The Natural, which he had hand-crafted from a tree split by lightning. As a result, bats were made with a variety of shapes and sizes. Over time, it was determined that bats with rounded barrels provided the best design for hitting a round ball. In 1884, J.A. Hillerich, at the age of 17, hand-crafted a bat for Louisville Eclipse star Pete Browning after Browning broke his bat during a game. Reportedly, Browning got three hits the next day using Hillerich’s bat, and the legend of the Louisville Slugger was born. Over the years, Hillerich was awarded several patents for his improvements to the design of the baseball bat. For example, in 1902, Hillerich was awarded U.S. Patent No. 716,541, entitled “Bat”, for a process of hardening the surface of the bat to allow balls to be hit farther distances, while preserving the full elasticity of the wood and preventing chipping or splintering.

In the 1890s, Emile Kinst invented a curved and grooved bat design, aimed to give hit balls extra spin so that they would be harder to field. U.S. Patent No. 838,257 was issued on December 11, 1906. The barrel of Kinst’s bat resembled a banana. Not surprisingly, Kinst’s design never caught on, as hitting a ball with a straight bat is still one of sport’s great challenges, so the extra challenge of using a curved bat was problematic.

William Gray received U.S. Patent No. 300,360 on June 17, 1884, for a bat with a handle roughened by the application of sand or grit to improve the batter’s grip. Gray sold his patent to A.G. Spalding & Co.; however, the invention never took off. Gray would have more success for a different baseball-related invention. On March 25, 1884, he invented an improved catcher’s chest protector. Using principles applied to the pneumatic bicycle tire, he designed an inflated, padded chest protector that shielded the catcher’s entire chest and groin area, without hindering his range of motion. Once again, he sold his patent to Spalding. Unlike his sand-bat concept, Gray’s “Body Protector” became a top seller for Spalding.

With the development of the curve ball in the 1860s, the position of catcher became more dangerous. Catchers desired to be closer to home plate to catch every pitch – maskless catchers would commonly stand over 20 feet behind the batter – and while chest protectors, like Gray’s Body Protector, helped block errant pitches, there was still a great fear of being hit in the face by the ball or the batter’s bat. In 1876, Fred Winthrop Thayer, a Harvard baseball player, invented a face guard by modifying a fencing mask. Spalding began selling Thayer’s catcher’s mask, without permission, for $3 a mask. Thayer successfully sued for infringement and was awarded royalties. The success of Thayer’s mask led to further improvements over time – including an open view cage design, added padding, neck protection, and even a light-weight “modern” mask design similar to hockey goalie masks.

Baseball, as America’s pastime, has been around for almost two centuries. While constantly ascribing to the traditions of the game, baseball has always found room for aspiring entrepreneurs to help improve and develop the gram. Even with all the traditional pomp and circumstance of opening day and a game that’s been around for almost a couple of centuries, as shown by the patents discussed here, baseball has proven to be a game of innovation. It will be interesting to see what the next enterprising baseball entrepreneur comes up with!

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